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How PBL Creates Authentic Student Engagement

Student engagement is perhaps one of the most discussed topics within education and is one of the few perennial yardsticks against which schools benchmark their progress and the effectiveness of teaching strategies. Talk in recent years has focused on the decline in student engagement – the Grattan Institute estimates that as many as 40% of secondary students are disengaged at any one time – and many schools have as a result built the desire for heightened student engagement into their strategic plans.

Even then, moving the needle on student engagement is hard to ‘hack’ and schools who approach this goal in the hope that a small, easy fix will be enough are frequently disappointed, or see small spikes in engagement in the short term followed by a reversion to the mean thereafter. In many cases, wholesale changes to the way teaching and learning occurs is one of only a few systemic solutions that can have a sustained impact.

At eduSTEM, we believe that project-based learning should be a key pillar in every school’s strategy to enhancing student engagement and that it is one of a select number of pedagogies which can achieve this outcome. We’ve seen examples of how PBL can have a significant and sustained impact on engagement in schools who have adopted that approach, and believe that any school can reap the same rewards.

What is student engagement?

Student engagement is one of those ‘know it when you see it’ phenomena that is as hard to define as it is to attain. We all know an engaged student when we see one, and we can just as easily tell the difference between a classroom that is engaged and a classroom that isn’t. But to fully understand how to promote and achieve greater student engagement, we need to go a little deeper than that.

We have been influenced by the research and writing of Phillip Schlechty, who in his Levels of Engagement has created one of the simplest yet most powerful frameworks for thinking about engagement that we have come across. Schlechty’s contention is that the way many people think about engagement – in terms of a ‘well managed classroom’ and students staying on task and acquiescent – is fundamentally flawed. A compliant classroom does not necessarily mean students are engaged and, by extension, learning. Conversely, classroom management is almost rendered redundant when a teacher has a classroom full of truly engaged students.

Schlechty argues that we have erroneously conflated engagement with attention when that only tells part of the story. Of course, attention is a prerequisite for engagement, but that doesn’t fully capture the essence of what it is to have a student who is absorbed in their learning. Schlechty created a second pillar of student engagement – commitment – to capture this. In his model, a truly engaged student is one who is not only displaying high levels of attention but is also highly committed to the task and to their learning in that instance.

Using these two pillars, Schlechty created a dichotomy of five different levels of student engagement. They are set out below.

The trouble with strategic compliance

Picture a ‘traditional’ classroom environment. The teacher is explaining a point, perhaps with the help of a video, a PowerPoint, or through a diagram on the board. The students are taking notes – mindful of the test coming up later that week – and are asking questions and responding to prompts provided by the teacher to test their understanding. They complete short answer questions to apply their new knowledge and discuss their learnings as a class at the end of the lesson. The teacher rarely has to resort to any behaviour management or apply corrective measures to ensure students stay on task. As the bell goes and the students file out, the teacher reflects on a class well done and how engaged the students seemed to be. Are they right?

Most people would say yes. Schlechty, however, would say perhaps, and only to a point. Under Schlechty’s engagement dichotomy, most students would be exhibiting behaviours consistent with strategic compliance rather than engagement. Student attention was mostly high, though there may have been some students whose attention was low (and were therefore operating at a ritual compliance level). However, in most cases, students would have had low commitment to what they were learning.

They were probably not enthralled in the content nor hugely intrinsically motivated to learn it – though there may have been some students in that category – instead, their attention comes from the desire to perform on the upcoming test. It is acting as an external pressure and prospective reward to hold students’ attention, yet is not a substitute for the passion and commitment that derives from an active interest and curiosity in the subject matter. If the test were removed and the ‘need’ to learn the information made redundant, would student attention still be as high? The answer in many classrooms might be ‘no’ and, even if it is ‘yes’, this might instead be because the students want to avoid the negative consequences (detention, a call to their parents) of low attention; this pushes them toward the ritual compliance level of Schlechty’s framework.

The other problem with conflating attention and engagement is that students who are functioning at a strategic compliance level also experience long-term shortfalls in their learning. These are the students who can strategically retain the ‘right’ knowledge needed to perform on a test and receive high marks, but who several weeks later no longer remember the majority of what they had once learned. They struggle retaining information long-term and find it difficult to apply what they know outside the narrow constructs of the test parameters. This is why high-achieving students find PBL or navigating an unstructured problem challenging; they have trained themselves to retain and narrowly apply information they are given, not to apply knowledge in a new way or ‘create’ their own knowledge.

The importance of PBL in attaining student engagement

True student engagement can only occur when high attention is paired with high commitment. For this to occur, students must not be learning or completing tasks because they ‘have to’ or because doing so is simply a hoop to jump through to attain a high test score. Instead, this commitment stems from one (or a combination) of the following scenarios:

  • Students exploring something that piques their interest or their curiosity

  • Students working on something that they are emotionally engaged in. Generally, this comes from being given a reason to ‘care’ about the task, the content, or the problem, such that they are intrinsically motivated to complete or solve it

  • Students being given the agency and the choice to fuse their own interests with the task requirements, such that the line is blurred between ‘work’ and ‘play’

PBL is uniquely placed as a pedagogy which can fulfil each of the above prerequisites for commitment and, therefore, authentic student engagement. It provides the impetus for emotional engagement by connecting learning to the real world; it gives students the chance to explore an aspect of a problem or context which they are most interested in; and, in giving students latitude to define and create their own solution, they become invested in the end product as a manifestation of what they have learned. This translates to creating lifelong learners who deeply understand curriculum content and, because they can transfer their learning to new contexts, can retain what they have learned long after the project is finished.

Of course, there are many strategies which can be layered on top of a PBL unit to further ensure student attention and commitment. These include building gamification elements into your project design or connecting with a community or industry partner to give students an external audience for their end product. The unique difference between PBL and explicit teaching, however, is that PBL significantly elevates the base level of engagement through creating the fertile conditions for high student attention and commitment.

This is essential in ensuring that more students are part of a highly engaged classroom – which Schlechty defines as having 60% of students as being engaged – as opposed to a well-managed classroom, where the majority of students are divided between strategic and ritual compliance.

Once you’ve experienced the difference, you’ll never look at teaching and learning the same way again.

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