The Crisis of Disengagement

In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.

 


Causes of Disengagement

First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.

 


What Disengagement Causes

Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.

Psychologists talk about this as a phenomenon that needs addressed through intrinsic-extrinsic motivation theory and goal theory, and the need to investigate the gaps between people, as well as what possible ways to maintain or stimulate peoples’ motivations to exchange social capital. They believe environments can be intentionally maintained to enhances the self-concept, social efficacy, and a sense of volition as well as self-determination to circumvent the demise of social capital. And all that’s fascinating to me, and I’m going to continue studying it to learn more.

 


Essential Learning

However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:

  • Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
  • Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.

That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Disengagement is a solvable problem.

My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!

 


Related Articles


Adam Fletcher is available to train, coach, speak, and write about Personal Engagement across the US and Canada. Contact him to learn about the possibilities!

Creating Meaningful Engagement, Anywhere, Anytime with ANYONE

Late last year the Mid-Atlantic Network for Youth (MANY) invited me to Baltimore, Maryland, to talk with nonprofit leaders from across the country. I joined a dozen other speakers in talking with these leaders for a day, and MANY recorded what I said.

I would love to hear what you think of this video. Please share your comments here, and PLEASE don’t hold back! Criticism, concerns, ideas, and anything else is welcome!

Don’t Let Students Be Misunderstood

All educators are well-meaning in their intentions for students. Nobody wants students to fail, no matter how poorly they are paid, how discriminatory they may be, or how brief/long they’ve worked in schools, there is no teacher, administrator, support staff or other adult in schools who overtly wants students to fail.

Adults in schools genuinely want students to get good jobs and have successful lives. They create activities and opportunities, programs and entire organizations that intend to promote students success, in ways that many adults define it: Future-oriented, success equates to having good educations, nuclear families, and successful employment, which means a great paycheck and a powerful position.

Students who don’t aspire to that vision of success are looked upon suspiciously. They are given labels and stigmatized constantly, and their version of success is frowned upon by adults. These students are given many descriptions, and are oftentimes said to be:

  • Deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills
  • Disconnected or at-risk of disconnecting from home and/or school
  • Facing disabilities
  • Coming from low-income families
  • Experiencing past, present, or chronic homelessness
  • Living in foster care or transitioning out of foster care
  • Experiencing pregnancy or parenting
  • Having a criminal record
  • Being court involved
  • Being gang involved
  • Experiencing substance abuse

 

Unfortunately, these descriptions show how we’re misunderstanding students.

3 Ways to REALLY Understand Students

If we are serious about student engagement, we have to understand what really disengages them right now. Here are three ways to REALLY understand students.

  1. Understand that ALL Students ARE Engaged in Learning Right Now—We Just Don’t Recognize That. With so many different avenues for educational engagement, including production, innovation, distribution, consumption, deconstruction and re-invention, the overwhelmingly vast majority of students are engaged in the learning right now. However, adults aren’t acknowledging how this is happening.
  2. Understand that Students are Engaged in Other Activities—We Simply Don’t Validate Their Importance. Even if they’ve dropped out, left home, or play video games all day, students are engaged in all kinds of things that are educational. They can be engaged in friendships, skateboarding, fashion, music, video gaming, cars and anything else in which they have a sustained connection. Because of that, they can also be engaged in things adults see as negative, like drugs, alcohol, sex and vandalism. If adults want students to become engaged in learning, we have to present them with something of equal or greater value to become engaged in—after we learn what they are currently engaged in.
  3. Understand that Students have been Taught to be Disengaged—And We Are Responsible for That, Too. Through television, at school, in their family lives, and throughout our communities, students are routinely taught to be disengaged. Parents and teachers constantly make decisions for students without students while politicians and business owners choose what students need without them, as well. However, a magic day comes when adults insist students automatically become engaged in what adults want them to. When that doesn’t happen we become frustrated and confused. Its no wonder why—imagine what its like for students themselves!

These are three ways to REALLY understand students. If you want to engage students in schools, it is important to understand these ways, because every students experiences some part of them right now.

Why It Matters

When faced with students who fit the descriptions above, adults in a variety of roles make immediate decisions based on them. They decide what students’ behaviors, attitudes, ideas and beliefs are without ever talking directly with them. In many cases, employers, teachers, social workers and others decide these students are disengaged. Because of that, they brush past them in interviews, ignore them in classes, or release them from services that might be vital to these students.

Student disengagement is often presented as a viral disease that sweeps through particular populations of students, like those listed above. This is especially true when talking about high school, where disengagement leads to students becoming “failed learners”. This view is often presented with research by its side, including claims that student engagement in the economy is determined by the income levels of families of origin more than other effects. However, correlation is not causation, and a lot of this research is presented from a lopsided perspective.

How To Change It

If we really want to address student disengagement in schools, we have to really understand students. Here are three ways to do that.

  • Acknowledge Student Engagement in Learning Right Now. Look at these seven parts of learning: Innovation, Creation, Development, Distribution, Consumption, Deconstruction, and Re-invention. Every single student is engaged in at least one of these parts right now. Alas, schools might not value their learning engagement, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t educationally engaged. Students are educationally engaged if they are writing apps for cell phones; reading magazines during school; running a lawn mowing business; knitting scarves for their friends; buying the latest songs online; recycling soda cans to save the planet; or taking apart old TVs and rebuilding them into something else. If you want to change your understanding of students, start seeing how they’re engaged in learning right now.
  • Validate the Importance of Every Form of Student Engagement. If you aren’t happy with the ways students are engaged in learning right now, try seeing the other things they’re sustainably connected to right now. Learning is woven throughout their lives, and every kind of student engagement benefits every part of the education. That means if students are sustainably connected to sports, they’re learning; if they’re engaged in comic books, they’re learning; if they’re deeply committed to learning about any topic, they’re learning. If you want to understand students, validate the importance of every form of student engagement.
  • Acknowledge You are Responsible for the Problem, and can be Part of the Solution. No generation has created the challenges it faces, and none is solely responsible for creating the solutions. However, if more people are going to understand students, we need to recognize that each of us is partly responsible for this challenge—and for the solution. This isn’t some grandiose charge, either. Its an earnest call for practical, meaningful action throughout schools right now. You have to take that responsibility in order for things to be different.

These are important considerations for educators to keep in mind when they are trying to help students graduate; learn about social issues; train students to do a particular job; teach life skills to students; make policies and regulations for students; and much more. They should be kept in mind by programs, classes, organizations, curriculum writers, and others who promote student engagement.

When we work from these places, we will see dramatic improvements in student engagement. That includes better classroom outcomes, learning goals, lifetime prospects, and much more. If we fail to acknowledge these realities, a different future is waiting than anything that’s been anticipated.

The Hidden Curriculum of Student Voice

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Student voice teaches students and adults. If you agree with that idea, then you’ll want to learn about the hidden curriculum of student voice.

Tucked into the heart of this is the understanding of the hidden curriculum of schools. The hidden curriculum of schools shows us that there are the things we teach on purpose, and then there are the things we teach inadvertently, accidentally, by coincidence, or simply without stating what our intentions are. Things like having seats in rows and students raise hands are part of the hidden curriculum; deeper though are things like teaching about wealthy, Anglo-centric males in history to low-income girls from communities of color. This can teach these students that the contributions of poor people, brown and black people, women, and their communities are lesser than those of wealthy white men. In turn, this can teach inferiority and reinforce oppression throughout society. These types lessons are part of the hidden curriculum of schools, teaching students lessons explicitly acknowledging they are teaching students lessons. The hidden curriculum is part of all curricular areas and every teaching methodology.

Student council, student leadership classes, and other student programs do similar things.

In the case of student voice, schools actively teach students to hide, hold, and change their voices according to the expectations of adults. We do that through a variety of subtle and overt mechanisms that stifle, suffocate, mimic and manipulate students. These include honor roles, attendance, rules, and punishments that are all among the many overt ways we pummel the natural and innate desire of young people to learn. Other examples include having middle class teachers in low-income communities; segregating young students from adult learners during formal learning activities; and using grades and test scores to dictate success. Still other examples include teaching some students, but not most, about student voice; to engage a few students in powerful roles not traditionally for students; or excusing the “right” students to go to the school district offices while leaving every other student behind. All of this has the cumulative effect of changing student voice, or stopping it all together.

Among many lessons, these practices teach students:

  • Their authentic voices are bad and that adults must approve of what they are saying;
  • “Learning” must be hard and doesn’t require student desire or feedback;
  • In order for learning and student voice to be valid, it must be accepted by adults.
  • Above all, students must seek adult approval for all “valid” forms of student voice

 

If a student does not follow these lessons, they are punished with punitive, coercive and largely arbitrary judgments and actions bestowed upon them by omnipotent adults. Censure, suspension and expulsion await student voice that does not conform.

All of this teaches students to hide, hold, and change student voice in schools. There are a lot more subtle gestures, but this is meant to kind of introduce the notion of the hidden curriculum that informs student voice practices.

Student Voice Is Not The Same As Student Engagement

Student Voice ≠ Student Engagement. Learn more at SoundOut.org

With more and more people increasingly jumping on the bandwagons of student voice and student engagement, it is becoming increasingly important to define, refine and understand what it is that we’re talking about. It is equally important to critically examine the assumptions informing a lot of this conversation and action, as well as the implications, impacts and processes throughout.

A lot of well-meaning people are throwing around phrases without really understanding what they are talking about. People are using student voice as a synonym for student engagement. All the while, they are discussing activities that are the exclusive domain of either concept as if they were. That’s all problematic for a few reasons…

 

 

Want to read more?

Order SoundOut Student Voice Series #2: Student Voice and Student Engagement by Adam Fletcher.