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Randy Shumway: Improved learning through increased student engagement

Published: Tuesday, June 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Several weeks ago, my colleague showed me a letter from his 10-year-old son, JT. The document started "Dear classmate — in an effort to summarize our thinking on the incident that happened on the foursquare court today, we have consolidated our ideas in this brief letter."

JT had been asked by a group of friends to write a formal response to a classmate who had violated informal classroom norms. My colleague explained that when he asked his 10-year-old son why this particular writing displayed skills absent in essays he had recently submitted for school assignments, he quipped "Dad, I was writing with a real purpose to a real person." This change in perspective and resulting effort, driven by the relevance of a real-world application, caused amazing writing.

Recent research with high school dropouts confirms the need to make learning more relevant to the lives of our students. Despite the popular image of dropouts being lazy and hard to motivate, many of today's 30 percent of high school students who dropout are highly intelligent young men and women who do not see the practical value in the education they are receiving.

Especially in today's economy, students are constantly calculating the return on their investment in time and energy to school. The choice to persist, given the current focus on abstract learning, simply doesn't add-up for many of them.

We have a largely unmet responsibility to increase student engagement through demonstrating how the content taught — both practical and abstract — applies to real-world problems.

Models of this learning already exist. I recently toured the Granite Technical Institute, a vibrant and engaging learning community within the Granite School District. I observed students dissecting a cadaver, applying piloting techniques in a flight simulator, designing 3-D Auto-Cad structures and conducting dental exams in one another's mouths.

As a group of students demonstrated to me the laser-tracking robots they had each built, I was even more impressed by their teacher as he refused to step-in and resolve a malfunction the robots were encountering. Instead, he allowed the demonstration to struggle in order to allow the students themselves to take responsibility and to resolve the problem.

Each teacher could have simply attempted to teach these same lessons through textbooks and lectures, but instead, they are engaging their students in real world applications.

I left wondering whether such immediate application of learning could apply to abstract subjects such as algebra. Frequently, foundational courses like algebra are taught at the cusp of middle and high school. With one-third of high school dropouts leaving school in their freshman year, it is precisely at this juncture in their lives when relevant and application-based learning is particularly important.

Imagine an algebra student interested in fashion design solving a problem using variables to determine the available material costs based on the selling price and labor costs of an item. Or think of a student utilizing linear equations to calculate his cell phone bill.

Unfortunately, our current paradigm of application-based learning exists primarily in career-focused settings. But abstract courses are also more effectively learned when applied to real-world meaning. I was fortunate to attend graduate school at a university regarded as one of the finest. Despite a college of highly published and respected professors, the majority of learning occurred in student-dominated discussions solving tangible, real-world business dilemmas. Applied learning is not simply for vocational courses; in fact, it is even more beneficial in learning abstract concepts.

The results of developing applied learning in all subjects pays exponential dividends—both in captivating students through engagement and in creating opportunities for students to more deeply understand and apply their knowledge. Collectively, these improvements will also allow Utah to teach harder curriculum at earlier grades as students become more engaged.

Increased efficacy in student learning invests not only in our children, but also in the long-term prosperity of Utah's economy and society.

Randy Shumway is the chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.

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