The Gallup polling organization recently confirmed an observation that other researchers have made and that many of us have experienced firsthand: Older students are less “engaged” with school than younger ones. Students’ youthful zest for discovery dims a bit more with each school year, making the process of teaching and learning ever more challenging as students feel less connected to, and interested in, the topics they’re asked to learn. Waning engagement isn’t only a cause for concern among students, Gallup warned; parents and teachers need to feel engaged with a school too. If they don’t, it’s hard for the school to accomplish much.
This phenomenon was one of the motivations for my colleague Bryan Goodwin to write Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives (McREL, 2018). Describing the work of groundbreaking researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Engel, Bryan wondered what happens to students and schools that seems to be driving a wedge between them as time passes. And, crucially: Can it be fixed?
It can. Curiosity, he found, responds to simple conversational techniques that can be applied amazingly well in all facets of life that involve interdependence—not just school but also work, public service, dating, and parenting. “Engagement” may be a bit of a buzzword among educators, yet it comes close to describing the sense of connectedness that Goodwin fears Americans may be running out of. (Gallup defines engagement as “a measurement of how involved, enthusiastic and committed one is to an organization.” Goodwin’s analysis includes the attitudes of individuals toward institutions but also pertains to one-on-one relationships.)
Gallup called it “surprising” that, according to its own research, parents are less engaged with their kids’ schools than consumers are with the companies they buy from. Can it really be true that we’re more interested in where we send our money than where we send our children? It’s time to recommit to social networks, Goodwin believes—real ones, not virtual ones—because lasting happiness stems from working and playing together, not from staring at a screen and hoping to be liked. In other words, engagement isn’t something that somebody else gives us; it’s something each of us must help to create. Relearning how to express curiosity about one another’s needs and perspectives is a good place to start.
Eric Hübler is a writer and editor at McREL International. He is a former Denver Post education reporter and marketing communications manager for Denver-area nonprofits.