The Importance of Student Engagement

The Importance of Student Engagement
Maura Joyce, Head of School

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

This saying, often attributed (but widely debated) to Confucius, has made the rounds in education for many years. It rings true for many of us, whether we are in school or not. The old saying resonated with me while learning to make a pie crust. I heard my husband (a former chef) tell me it should be like little pearls (or was it pebbles?), and I remembered how it should look from the YouTube video I watched. However, I did not understand how it should all come together and work into a dough until I did it myself several times, frustrated by my failures and elated by my successes.

Being a Montessori school for the past 60 years, Post Oak’s identity is wrapped up in the “doing” part of learning. Students listen and watch lessons, but understanding and mastery come from getting their hands on materials, exploring, practicing, getting it wrong, trying it again, and getting it right. It comes from discussion and debate, connecting with others, collaborating with their teachers, and critically assessing their progress. Another way to say it: our students are engaged in the learning process. There is a lot of talk about student engagement in the world of education and for good reason. 

What is student engagement, and why does it matter?

Students are engaged when they are involved in their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work. Student engagement also refers to a “student’s willingness, need, desire and compulsion to participate in, and be successful in, the learning process promoting higher level thinking for enduring understanding.”

Student engagement can be measured, and research shows that it makes a difference in students being prepared for life. Gallup’s research team has been studying engagement for decades, and their 2018 article boasts some impressive results. 

Schools with higher levels of student engagement had a 36% higher rate of students achieving the satisfactory requirement for postsecondary readiness in math and a 65% higher rate of students achieving the satisfactory requirement for postsecondary readiness in writing.

Benefits went beyond academics and directly correlated to improved attendance and behavior. My favorite finding is that engaged students are… 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers. What a wonderful outcome—hope!

Student engagement is more than answering questions when called upon. It is about true interest in content, participation in discussion, reactions to peers and teachers, and using the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional self in learning. 

How do schools foster engagement? 

There are several elements to fostering student engagement: 

  • nurturing relationships, 
  • creating meaningful work, 
  • fostering autonomy, 
  • and increasing self-efficacy and competency. 

All of these elements are infused into the fabric of Post Oak and the Montessori foundation of our school. Students are engaged when they feel safe and seen, included in the work, and can build skills to do things themselves. Step one is to nurture relationships between the adults and the children and among the children so they can engage with support built in. Using practical activities in the YCC and Primary and stories in the Elementary, children are drawn to the work and know how it relates to them. That, coupled with the element of choice, makes the work meaningful and theirs. Young students are afforded the opportunity to do things by themselves, which simply becomes an expectation for them as they move through the upper grades. This is true for academic work, behavioral expectations, and social interactions, helping them to advocate for themselves, others, and the community. All throughout the years at Post Oak, teachers are trained in the delicate art of helping students to be able to do things by themselves. Year after year, this increases competency and self-efficacy, preparing them not only for the next level of education but for a whole host of challenges and opportunities.

Engagement prepares students for life

Post Oak’s High School students participate annually in the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) along with other high school students in private and public schools nationwide. Comparison schools are from two other groups: all National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)-member schools and public schools.

Consistently, Post Oak’s High School students exhibited higher levels of engagement than other private and public schools, setting them up for success in school and life.

(Engagement measurement will be added for Middle School students in the spring of 2024 and Elementary students the next year.) Post Oak’s high levels of student engagement result from activity and environment, beginning all the way back in the Young Children’s Community and moving through Primary, Elementary, Middle, and High School. 

A Post Oak education is truly a preparation for life. Watching the student engagement on our campuses each day is one of the joys of my life. It is no wonder that high levels of student engagement lead to hope for the future. Our Bearkats fulfill Montessori’s treatise: The child is both a hope and a promise of (hu)mankind.

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