The Research Supporting Our Engagement-Based Practice

November 16, 2016

(Photo credit: M2Film via the LEGO Foundation)

This November, Executive Director Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld spoke with Robyn Sperling, Director of Research and Evaluation for Inspired Teaching. Robyn described the research department’s work to support our programs and show the theory behind our practice, including offering a preview of our upcoming white paper on the need for engagement-based education.

Jane: What role does research play in the work of Inspired Teaching?

Robyn: Over the past few years our focus has been on program quality and evaluation, which we use to make our programs as strong as possible. Now we are placing an explicit focus on outward-facing research to help move our work forward and change the public dialogue about teaching and learning. We will be putting out a series of white papers explaining the theory behind our practice. Our first white paper highlights the need to adopt engagement-based, rather than compliance-based, education in all of our nation’s schools. The next white paper will focus on how we teach teachers to be engagement-based: through transformative professional development, rooted in Inspired Teaching’s 5-step process.

What have we learned so far?

While experts agree that for learning to take place, students need to be truly engaged, there are many definitions of what student engagement looks, sounds, and feels like. Researchers often distinguish between three different kinds of engagement. “Behavioral engagement” is essentially whether or not a student is participating. “Emotional engagement” measures how much they actually like or value the activity. And “cognitive engagement” tells us how invested they are in the assignment. Inspired Teaching uses all of these concepts, and adds a physical or kinesthetic component as well, thus defining student engagement as ‘physical, emotional, and intellectual involvement in learning.’

Twenty-first century skills — which enable individuals to independently analyze and apply information, not merely parrot it back at the right time — are exactly the types of skills that engagement-based education values and builds in students. This is why Center for Inspired Teaching believes all schools should be engagement-based: founded on the idea that young people are innately curious, that they want to learn, and that they are born with the ability to grapple with complex problems and invent solutions.

Our research shows that schools should embrace the belief that young people can come up with ideas that can actually transform communities. This can only be done if our teachers and schools view students not as empty vessels or empty heads to fill, but as the owners of powerful minds who need to learn how to use those minds well.

You mentioned compliance-based education – can you tell us more about it?

In recent years, policymakers have attempted to solve educational challenges by trying to make American students more “competitive” on international standardized assessments. These leaders have implemented rigorous curricula, standardized tests, and various punitive measures for schools and districts not complying with state and national mandates. This environment set the stage for the proliferation of schools characterized by a highly regulated and compliance-based environment.  While some compliance-based schools have been touted by these same policymakers for their test scores, policies in these schools are often controlling, authoritarian, and coercive, stifling the very creativity and intellectual independence Inspired Teaching believes students need to thrive. The strict discipline in these schools works to ensure that student compliance is the most highly valued skill of all.

What the schools and the policymakers who support these practices fail to recognize, however, is that the absence of misbehavior does not necessarily indicate the presence of learning.

What’s next for research at Inspired Teaching?

Stay tuned for our series of white papers! Meanwhile, our core work will continue, and we will continue to conduct research and evaluation to strengthen all of our programs. New this school year is our research through the Mathematics and Science Partnership grant, which focuses on STEM teachers and their students. We are doing a quasi-experimental study looking at teachers’ instruction, teachers’ STEM content knowledge, and students’ STEM content knowledge. We will compare teachers participating in one of our programs to a control group, to see how Inspired Teaching’s professional development affected STEM instruction and content knowledge. We are looking forward to showing our impact in a strong, empirical way.

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