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A Bad Start to Lifelong Learning?

by Jeff Cobb

Is our desire to be engaged, effective lifelong learners beaten down, if not killed outright by the time we leave high school? That may be too bleak a conclusion to draw, but the findings of a recent Gallup survey are disturbing nonetheless.

Gallup surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012 and found that by the time students get to high school only about 4 in 10 qualify as engaged.

As the writer of the Gallup blog post on the poll argues, you would hope these numbers would be exactly the opposite – that students would become more engaged as they go through school.

Larry Ferlazzo rightly points out that this is not a statistically valid survey: there was no random sampling involved; schools and students participated on a volunteer basis. Still, a sample of half a million is hard to ignore.

You could also debate whether the best possible questions were used to measure “engagement.” Here’s the set of questions (again, thanks to Larry for digging these up):

8. I have a best friend at school.
9. I feel safe in this school.
10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.
11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.
13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.
14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.

I’m sure your average committee could debate these forever, but my main concern in administering this kind of survey would be that the same questions are asked in the same way across the group of participants – which does appear to be the case.

In the end, you can only rely so much on this or any other survey, but the results do reinforce the need for diligence in at least a couple of areas.

First, every lifelong learner – or budding lifelong learner – needs to be as conscious as possible of the forces that may dampen motivation and engagement. School is not the only place we encounter these of course – a significant amount of data suggests that engagement levels at work are often as bad or worse than what the Gallup poll shows for school. It’s worth asking yourself questions similar to those in the Gallup survey and see how you fare.

Second, parents – as always – need to be highly aware of the impact Education (with a capital “E”) as an institution can end up having on intrinsic motivation to learn. None of us want disengagement to be the result, of course, and I have no doubt that the average teacher works hard to keep students engaged. Still, when you move so many people through a large system, a certain amount of disengagement seems inevitable. Parental engagement in maintaining engagement and cultivating lifelong learning is essential.

What do you think? How much weight do you give to the Gallup poll results, and how concerned should we be about the current state of student engagement as a foundation for lifelong learning?


posted on January 14, 2013

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