Volume:9, Issue: 1

May. 15, 2017

How to Handle the American Educational System: Improving student learning through engagement
Willson, Alice [about]

ABSTRACT: In this paper the issues of how to improve student engagement and as a result, student success in schools will be scrutinized. The ideas of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Montessori will be addressed along with modern educators teaching in predominantly black communities. From these educational professionals, their ideas, and studies done more recently, the author will suggest another factor that can negatively affect student engagement: an inability for students to see themselves having bright futures.

KEYWORDS: Student Engagement, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Black Communities

Schools are a place where improvements can always be made. In the beginning, the school system in the United States was focused on availability for students. The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 and the Land Ordinance of 1785 required settled lands to have space set aside for schools and schoolmasters to teach in these schools. As years continued, the country saw further development of educational infrastructure with the first installation of the Department of Education in 1867. This signified the first step towards monitoring our nation’s schools and the country’s educational standing compared to other nations.

This first installation of the Department of Education had little federal accountability due to a desire to keep power with the states, but it did force government officials and lawmakers to look at statistics related to our schools. While educational theorists and thinkers like Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Montessori, and others before and after them had been considering ways to improve education for centuries, here we began seeing policy makers included in the conversation. With the reinstallation of the Department of Education in 1980, the country was brought up to date on many educational shortcomings in the publication the department did in 1983 called, A Nation at Risk. In this document a committee of government officials, educators, and private sector individuals reviewed research on the American school system. After their research, the committee presented their suggestions for improving American schools in the aforementioned document.

Since that time, the government has created more policies to hold schools accountable such as, for example, Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind. In their turn, these policies of accountability have created a situation where schools must improve student performance but the question of how remains. A common theme in much of the research that has been done is that a way to improve school performance is to make schools more engaging and relevant to students.

While many authors and researchers agree that making school relevant to students is a necessity (Fay and Funk, 1995; Wong and Wong, 2009; Brophy, 1987; Hattie, 2009), the way this is achieved has changed over time. In the 18th century Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two educational reformers in Europe, advocated experiential learning as a means to bring relevance to student learning (Gutek, 1995). Both believed in a learning process that was integrated with the real world experiences of students. Pestalozzi rooted his education in farm life, teaching his students how to plow and sow crops, mend and sew clothes, and much more. Rousseau believed in carefully devising situations for students in which they must autonomously problem solve and develop stronger understandings of the world around them. The situations Rousseau used were rooted in the real world and experiences his students were having. While Rousseau and Pestalozzi lived much of their lives in the 1700’s some of their ideas still hold strong today.

Currently in the field of education, project based learning and inquiry based learning are very popular practices. Some schools, such as Mill’s College Children’s School (Oakland, CA), base much of their curriculum on project based ideas (Walker, 2014). In schools with a project based or inquiry mindset, students utilize many of the ideas Rousseau and Pestalozzi believed so strongly in. Similar to Rousseau’s carefully devised problems, inquiry based schools will present students with a problem that they must autonomously solve. These problems are often rooted in the real world and utilize many of Pestalozzi’s concepts of work and nature. At Mills College Children’s School, students run a cafĂ© where they prepare all the food and sell it. In the process of making the food and working with money, the students learn life skills that will benefit them in their future.

Project based and inquiry learning is so important that the edTPA2, a process necessary for teachers to receive teaching credentials, emphasizes the use of inquiry and real world phenomena in the lessons future teachers submit (For more information on the edTPA and their grading rubric see the resources at the end of this paper). While the use and application of real world phenomena is a strong way to engage students, there is more at hand in these earlier beliefs than just that.

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, believed strongly in the use of manipulatives to help students learn (Gutek, 1995). While Montessori came over a century after Rousseau and Pestalozzi, she took their ideas and gave them scientific backing. Using her psychological understanding as well as physiology, Montessori observed students and their learning as they worked with manipulatives. Much of her work was discredited at the time as being strategies only for the developmentally delayed since it mostly revolved around these students. In more recent years, however, it has been found to be beneficial to all students and more parents have sought out Montessori education for their children (Boggan, Harper, and Whitmire, 2010; Moch 2002).

My mother, an educator and administrator, decided to place me and my brother in Montessori preschools growing up because of the research she did while pursuing her degrees in education. From what I can remember the school was engaging and utilized many hands on activities. In addition to the use of manipulatives, I remember the school allowing students to pursue the activities that they were most interested in. This concept of students being highly motivated by their personal interests is one Montessori held firmly to.

Many studies done in recent years support the theories of educational professionals of the past like Maria Montessori. Studies have begun to see a trend between students’ lack of success in school and a correlating lack of interest in curriculum (Willms 2003). Similarly, studies have also indicated a positive correlation between success in school and students finding curriculum relevant and aligned with their interests (Charleton 2010). Suggestions have been made by professionals to focus on making curriculum relevant and of interest to students, and this has been found to work in many schools. Case studies focusing on this aspect of student learning have also supported that engaging students through interests and relevance have been successful in improving student learning (Trowler and Trowler 2010). While student interest is a vital factor, it can be meaningless if students don’t see a future for themselves in the areas they are interested.

In the documentary, Let’s Talk Education, a panel of educational professionals discussed the struggles of young black men in American schools. While the panel examined the issues of engagement, they also addressed the issues that could still stand in the way of student success even if lessons were engaging and relevant. One such issue is that of community and a lack of strong role models that can show students where their interests, and especially the interests addressed in schools, can take them. One of the case studies done by Trowler and Trowler (2010) focused on this point. The school of interest was in Northeast England and attempted to engage students by engaging the community surrounding their school. Not only did the school begin to share facilities with the community but also had students go to events within the city. As the students interacted more with adults similar to themselves and see more of the real world applications of their learning, the students were more engaged in their lessons. These interactions with community members ties in very nicely with one of the most powerful points made in the discussion on Let’s Talk Education.

As educators we can provide our students with project based learning and inquiry based lessons, but our students will not care if they do not see themselves ever being in a position to solve such problems. Jasun Farone (Let’s Talk Education), discussed his program to gain interest of young black boys to pursue STEM fields and his conscious effort to find black men in such fields. When students saw men who did not only look like them but who also experienced tough upbringings similar to theirs, they began to see what their education could do for them. Many of the young men in Farone’s program began looking at their education in a new light after these interactions.

In my own teaching experience, it is always my goal to make lessons interesting and relevant to my students, but recently I have recognized, that is not enough. Relevance can be found in the real world application and when a student’s interests are addressed, but engagement in the present is impossible without recognition of the student’s future. While many in the educational field agree that engagement in lessons is vital for student success, we must begin to look at barriers to the engagement despite addressing real world relevance. While Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Montessori tried to have their peers simply recognize the need for real world application and relevance to students’ lives in curriculum, we now have different struggles. Not all students are created equal and not all see an equal opportunity in all careers. It is our responsibility to demonstrate their potential despite their perceptions of the world.

In today’s society, lesson relevance is one small piece in the growing puzzle that is student success. A lesson that is relevant to students does not simply consider a student’s interest and apply it to a subject. For a lesson to be relevant to students, we must take a student’s interests, apply it to a subject and also help a child see themselves pursuing such a field. One way this could work in the classroom is through the use of guest speakers or mentors. These adults can come from a variety of career fields as well as a variety of backgrounds. Lessons for the week or unit should revolve around the guest lecturer to help students see aspects of the career in person. This method is similar to Project Based Learning environments but it applies the integral component of mentorship discussed in Let’s Talk Education. Such a classroom would have the real world application Rousseau and Pestalozzi advocated; manipulatives and personally relevant materials Montessori advocated; and the mentorship needed to show students they can achieve success regardless of where they come from.

When students do not only see the application of their learning but can also see their future as a result of this education, then any disengaged student will become more engaged. While there is no magic bullet to fixing systemic issues in our education system, focusing on the little things might help students a lot. Making personal connections, finding role models for your students, and designing projects and questions that utilize aspects of their life can make all the difference in students’ present and future.


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  2. Brophy, J. (1987). Synthesis of research on strategies for motivating students to learn. Educational leadership45(2), 40-48.
  3. Charlton, Beth Critchley (2010). Engaging the Disengaged. Markham, Ont.: Pembroke.
  4. Fay, J. & Funk, D. (1995). Teaching with love and logic. Golden, CO: The Love and Logic Press
  5. Gutek, G. L. (1995). A History of the Western educational experience (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press. (Chapter 9 and 12).
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  7. "Let's Talk Education - Educating Our Young African-American Men." YouTube. YouTube, 02 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2017
  8. Moch, P. L. (2002, March). Manipulatives work!. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 81-87). Taylor & Francis Group.
  9. Trowler, V., & Trowler, P. (2010). Student engagement case studies. York: The Higher Education Academy.
  10. Walker, Whitney. "The Happy Eating Place: How Elementary Students Can Run Their Own Business." Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, 23 July 2014. Web. 04 Feb. 2017.
  11. Webb, L. D., Metha, A., & Jordan, K. F. (2000). Foundations of American education. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Merrill
  12. Willms JD (2003). Student engagement at school. OECD; Paris.
  13. Wong H.K. & Wong, R.T. (2009) The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.

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