The High Cost of Disengagement
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Train teachers to call only on students who raise their hands and to build on correct responses to maintain a brisk classroom pace. This would enhance the self-confidence of already proficient students and minimize class participation and engagement among those who enter with lower proficiency.
—Kim Marshall, "A How-to Plan for Widening the Gap"
Think about the typical question-and-answer session in most classrooms. We call it "the beach ball scenario" because it reminds us of a scene in which a teacher is holding a beach ball. She tosses it to a student, who quickly catches the ball and tosses it back. She then tosses it to another student. The same scenario happens perhaps three or four times during what is poorly referred to as a "class discussion." Although the teacher asks three or four questions, only two or three eager students actually get an opportunity to demonstrate active cognitive engagement with the topic at hand (we say two or three because a couple of enthusiastic students usually answer more than one question). Often even seasoned teachers can relate to the problem of calling out a question and getting a response from only one or two students. They get little feedback from the others and don't get an accurate assessment of what the others have learned until it's too late. They remember the beach ball scenario because for many, they did it just yesterday. Let's face it: we can all get stuck in the beach ball scenario.
The problem with tossing the beach ball is that too many students sit, either passively or actively disengaged, giving no indication of what they are thinking or of what they have learned. They have effectively learned to fly beneath the radar. Do you remember doing the same thing? Was it a high school or an upper-elementary content class many moons ago? Did you actually even read the book? Well, we'll make no confessions here, for fear that high school diplomas can actually be revoked after issuance. But our point is this: unless you intentionally plan for and require students to demonstrate active participation and cognitive engagement with the topic that you are teaching, you have no way of knowing what students are learning until it's often too late to repair misunderstandings. With approximately six hours of actual instructional time per school day, what percentage of that time are students actively engaged and cognitively invested in what is being taught or learned in your classroom? What evidence do we as teachers have that students are actually cognitively in tune with us? And what wonderful and deep critical thinking are we missing out on by not requiring evidence of processing and content-based interactions by our students?
Research on Total Participation Techniques
If we were given the opportunity to choose just one tool that could dramatically improve teaching and learning, we would choose Total Participation Techniques as the quickest, simplest, most effective vehicle for doing so. Whether you're a student teacher, a novice teacher, or even a 30-year veteran, a total-participation mindset is essential for ensuring active participation and cognitive engagement by all of your learners, as well as for providing you with effective ongoing formative assessments. Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) are teaching techniques that allow for all students to demonstrate, at the same time, active participation and cognitive engagement in the topic being studied. Quite simply, we believe that if you infuse your teaching with TPTs, you'll be a stronger teacher and fewer students will fall through the cracks of our educational system. TPTs can make us all better teachers.
A study conducted in four North Texas schools, with 211 5th grade English language learners (ELLs), found that those who attended the two TPT-practicing schools outperformed those in the two non-TPT-practicing schools on standardized reading tests. Studies involving comparisons of ELLs are often subject to numerous variables that affect how data might appear. The biggest issue with studies involving ELLs is that of dissimilar proficiency levels of students in the schools being compared. However, when comparing monitored students who had been exited within two years, whose proficiency levels would likely be similar, the students in the TPT-practicing schools outperformed those in the non-TPT-practicing schools at the end of the year on standardized reading tests (de la Isla, 2015).
The importance of student engagement is not limited to K–12 classrooms. University professors Witkowski and Cornell (2015) used the TPT Cognitive Engagement Model (Himmele & Himmele, 2011) and quadrant analyses to investigate the effects of collaborative activities and TPTs on student engagement and learning for 95 students in two undergraduate literacy classes. The results prompted them to make revisions to their courses that supported an increase in the level of cognitive engagement on the part of all students. According to Witkowski and Cornell, "the TPT Cognitive Engagement Model and Quadrant Analysis helped us to dramatically change our methods of teaching" (p. 63). Self-reported student learning and motivation increased as a result of the integration of TPTs and collaborative approaches to teaching as well (Witkowski & Cornell, 2015). The TPT Cognitive Engagement Model will be further described in Chapter 2
The more we observe excellent teachers teach, the more convinced we become that the common thread in their teaching is ensuring that students become actively, cognitively, and emotionally engaged in the content being taught. And although we are the first to admit that "there is nothing new under the sun" and that the idea behind TPTs is truly a simple concept, we too often see that the actual implementation of techniques that cognitively engage students is not the norm in many classrooms. This situation is true whether we visit urban schools, rural schools, or well-to-do suburban schools. We find over and over again, too many teachers continue to fall back into the same old pattern of "delivering" the content while allowing their students to fall into the pattern of delivering passive stares. Too much focus is often placed on the teacher as the distributor of knowledge. A TPT mindset can effectively take the focus off of teaching and place it on what, and to what extent, your students are learning.
Unfortunately, as mentioned in the Introduction to this book, too much of today's teaching is characterized by a stand-and-deliver approach to presenting content, in which teachers simply stand at the front of the room and deliver the material to be learned. Paolo Freire (2000) describes students in this type of a scenario as "listening objects" (p. 71). Would you like to be a listening object? Think about it. Would it warm your heart to know that daily you pack your children's lunches and they eagerly race off to school, where they sit and become someone's listening objects? Education built around the notion of listening objects or stand-and-deliver teaching is not effective for young minds, and it doesn't work for adults either. At any age, people need to pause and process what they're learning. They need to chew on concepts, jot down their thoughts, compare understandings with peers, articulate their questions, and as reading specialist Keely Potter puts it, "celebrate the learning that is happening right now in my head."
Disengaging and Dropping Out
Every nine seconds, a student drops out of school (Lehr, Johnson, Bremer, Cosio, & Thompson, 2004). Although recent indicators point to progress within overall graduation rates, even the encouraging reports still indicate that a fifth of our students drop out (DePaoli et al., 2016; Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, 2012). The picture is bleakest for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, whose dropout percentages are more than twice that of their white peers (Balfanz, Bridgeland, Moore, & Hornig Fox, 2010). Because much of our experience is with students in urban schools, we have a very real understanding that effective teaching can have a direct influence on a student's life choices.
For six years we both volunteered in California's Chino State Prisons (Bill in the men's, Pérsida in the women's). If you don't yet understand the effect that your teaching can have on students, consider volunteering in a prison. The experience will make you an instant believer in the power of your teaching. In prisons, illiteracy is rampant. Dropping out of high school is not the exception—it is the norm. In fact, three-quarters of state prison inmates are dropouts (Martin & Halperin, 2006). And academic self-confidence is close to nonexistent among prisoners. As soon as inmates discovered we were teachers, many would freely tell us about their academic inadequacies and failures. Many were quick to place the full extent of the blame on themselves.
The cost of school failure doesn't end with the incarcerated. Think about the toll incarceration takes on the children of inmates, including the vicious circle of incarceration. We have both met mothers and fathers whose daughters and sons were serving a prison sentence at the same time as the parents. What kinds of educational experiences did these men and women participate in? Did they become "listening objects"? Would a better education have made a difference?
Boredom and Engagement
The reasons for dropping out vary depending on the students, but among the top reasons—cited by the dropouts themselves—are boredom and the irrelevance of school (America's Promise Alliance, 2014; Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006). For most dropouts, becoming listening objects didn't work. When high school students talked about the types of teaching they wanted, they "described their preferred instructional strategies as ones that were hands-on, and that contained opportunities for debate and discussion" (Certo, Cauley, Moxley, & Chafin, 2008, p. 32). In other words, they preferred engagement, or just the opposite of boredom. These same researchers found that one of the negative consequences of a heavy emphasis on broad curricular coverage aimed at meeting academic standards was that "the quality of instruction is less engaging to students" (p. 26). A 2015 Gallup poll, surveying close to a million students, found that 50 percent of 5th through 12th graders reported being "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in school. The more students advanced in grade levels, the less likely they were to agree with the statement "In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting at school."
Several studies and high school reform initiatives cite student engagement as a key ingredient in helping students stay in school and be successful (ASCD, 2010; Bridgeland et al., 2006; Lehr et al., 2004; Ream & Rumberger, 2008; Voke, 2002). According to a student respondent in the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement, "I think that the teachers have a lot to do with how you feel about school. Some teachers do well in engaging you and others never engage anyone" (Yazzie-Mintz, 2010, p. 20). Though failure to engage students would certainly not be intentional, it may in large part be owed to the prevalence of lesson delivery methods based primarily on lecture. David Sousa (2006) reports 4 to 10 times more retention when students are involved in verbal and visual processing (audiovisual, demonstration, and discussion groups) than when they are exposed to verbal processing alone (lecture and reading). After 24 hours, average students retain an average of 5 percent of what was lectured, 10 percent of what was read, 50 percent of what was learned as a result of being involved in a discussion group, and 90 percent of what they immediately used or taught to others. Teaching others, and immediately using what is learned, results in 19 times the retention as what is learned in lecture format. However, Sousa also states that "despite the impressive amount of evidence about how little students retain from lecture, it continues to be the most prevalent method of teaching, especially in secondary and higher education" (p. 94).
Making a Difference
Why would we, as authors of a book dedicated to infusing your classrooms with fun, interactive, participatory, and cognitively engaging strategies, dwell on something as depressing as the dropout problem? We do so because we know that for some students, cognitively engaging experiences can literally mean the difference between life and death. In case you think we are exaggerating, think about how dropping out is connected to crime and incarceration. Moretti (2005) estimates, through his meta-analysis, that "a one-year increase in average years of schooling reduces murder and assault by almost 30%, motor vehicle theft by 20%, arson by 13%, and burglary and larceny by about 6%" (p. 6). Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison (2006) calculate that a dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a person with at least a high school diploma. The less education that inmates have, the more likely they are to return to prison (Harlow, 2003).
We know that effective teaching makes a difference (Black, 2016; Tucker & Stronge, 2005). In fact, an analysis of student academic growth over time suggests that teacher effectiveness has a greater influence on student performance than race, socioeconomic status, or class size (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Sanders & Horn, 1998). The cumulative residual effects of ineffective teaching last for years, even after exposure to ineffective teaching has been followed by exposure to effective teaching (Jordan, Mendro, & Weerasinghe, 1997; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). In sum, the quality of education a child receives is highly dependent on the effectiveness of that child's teachers.
Whether you work in suburban or urban schools, teaching average performers, gifted high achievers and underachievers, children of immigrants, students with special needs, students who repeatedly experience school failure, or simply your average passive performer teetering between staying in and dropping out, your excellence in effective teaching could be the answer to parents' prayers and the vehicle by which they see their dreams for their son or daughter realized. One teacher can make such a difference.
Evidence of Active Participation
In 2014, a blog post by Alexis Wiggins, 15-year teaching veteran and daughter of the late education guru Grant Wiggins, went viral. It was picked up by several major news outlets, including Valerie Strauss's column in the Washington Post. Wiggins had spent two days shadowing two students before she took on a new role as a high school learning coach.
These were her key takeaways (Wiggins, in Strauss, 2014):
- Key Takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
- Key Takeaway #2: High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.
- Key Takeaway #3: Students feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long. ("I lost count of how many times we were told to be quiet and pay attention.")
Wiggins's discoveries are so important to the process of becoming an effective teacher that we've made her blog post required reading for our student teacher candidates. It contains essential reminders that we all need to hear periodically that can help to place us in the shoes of our students.
The use of Total Participation Techniques provides teachers with evidence of active participation and cognitive engagement. They can have a direct effect on the reasons most students drop out or fail to meet their academic potential. For one thing, in a TPT-conducive classroom, students are not allowed to be passive and hide behind the others who are always raising their hands. All students are demonstrating that they are learning and interacting and—believe it or not—doing so while they're having a great time. You will notice that all the techniques we present require active processing at deep levels of thinking, and all but a few use interaction.
Manheim Central Middle School
Let's look at the socially tenuous and risk-conscious environment that is often present in a typical middle school classroom. According to Keely Potter, a reading specialist at Manheim Central Middle School in south-central Pennsylvania, "By the time many students hit middle school, disengagement has become a learned behavior—not for all, but for some, especially those that hold little social capital among their peers. Too many are either resistant to engagement, afraid to engage, or afraid to appear too engaged. So that's one of the most important things that we can try to undo as effective middle school teachers."
Keely and several other teachers at the middle school made it their priority to infuse TPTs into their daily curriculum. They graciously invited us into their classrooms and are the source of many of the examples we use throughout this book. The best teaching that we have observed involves teachers setting the stage for students to demonstrate cognitive engagement in activities that require time to process, to make connections, and to interact with peers as well as their teachers. We are convinced that the accountability and cognitive engagement that result from TPTs can make a difference between mediocrity and excellence in teaching—and between student failure and student success.
When asked about the role of Total Participation Techniques in teaching, 8th grade English teacher Matt Baker said, "I've completely bought into it." He went on to talk about how he arrived at this acceptance. And he shared his thoughts about his earlier eight years of teaching experience in a high school:
Student interaction was rare. The idea of kids sharing something with one another, and the idea of kids sitting next to one another, was a foreign concept. The mentality was, you can't ever let them work in groups because then one person does all the work and everybody gets a good grade, and it's not fair. Everybody was in rows; if they were sharing something, it meant they were cheating. But that type of teaching doesn't work. Kids need to talk to one another. They ca...