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Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students' Motivation to Learn

reviewed by Susan Studer - 2004

coverTitle: Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students' Motivation to Learn
Author(s): National Research Council
Publisher: National Academy Press, Washington
ISBN: 0309084350, Pages: 286, Year: 2004
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Pre-service teaching students in credentialing programs nationwide complete requirements of at least one semester of coursework in human growth and development classes before they are permitted to student teach. In these classes they are taught the theories of noted educators, psychologists, and researchers, past and present, gaining information conducive to motivating children and young people to engage in learning in today’s schools. In these “theories of learning” courses future teachers are introduced to the developmental theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky, the moral perspective of Kohlberg, the individualizing teaching technique of Gardner, and the behavior theories of Wong and Skinner. Students are taught in their teacher training, not only the importance of the developmental stages of various aged children, but ways to motivate children to behave in a manner that allows teaching and learning to take place.


Unfortunately, for older students, much of what is taught in these courses is focused on the elementary and perhaps middle school aged child, but little is concentrated on teenagers who have long since lost their earlier enthusiasm for school. According to the authors of the book Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn, young people who come to school eager to learn often lose academic motivation as they move from elementary school into high school. In fact, disengagement is common in the high school student, and this disengagement creates a serious problem especially for adolescents from poor and urban schools who find little relevance in the classes they are required to attend. Sadly, for these students, high school may very well be their last chance for success after school. For many, the authors write, there may not be any “second chances.”


Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation awarded to the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine as a part of an initiative on Adolescent Education and School Reform, the authors of Engaging Schools include “volunteer scholars and other experts” (p. ix) from public schools, researchers, and faculty from schools of education, pediatrics, sociology, psychology, public health, and law. This cadre of experts have compiled and reviewed vast amounts of research relevant to motivating young people. The result is, that although it has been written by a committee, it has also been “written by” the many authors of motivation studies and effective educational policies on the practice of student engagement and learning. Therefore, each chapter is illustrated with studies that alone make this book a dynamic resource for educators and researchers.


Having cited the research on high school students’ motivation, the authors conclude that the courses and instructional methods used in high schools must be redesigned to increase adolescent engagement and learning. This, they write, requires the ongoing assessment of understanding and skills and pre-service teacher training that includes “a range of pedagogical strategies and understandings about adolescents and how they learn” (p. 4). Support and resources, they claim, need to be made available to ALL students, and appropriate tests must be designed to be used to assess high-level critical thinking instead of the current emphasis on exit exams as a method of evaluation that only promotes dropping out. Restructuring within districts for smaller learning communities that foster personalized and continuous relationships between teachers and students, they add, will result in schools where students experience success.


The committee encourages the elimination of the common high school practice of ability tracking and also recommends diffusing school guidance and counseling responsibilities (with the support of professionals) to teachers and staff. They also recommend that schools make an effort to identify and coordinate with local community health and social service agencies to provide services to students who may have needs outside the focus of the school.


But perhaps key to the engagement of high school students in school and learning is parental involvement.  Research indicates that parental involvement is a powerful predictor of student success. As a result of this research, the authors recommend improved communication, coordination, and trust among students and adults in the places adolescents frequent away from the school (the home, religious institutions, and various extracurricular activities). The motivation to learn, the authors write, depends on the students’ involvement in a “web of social relationships that support learning” (p. 3). This “web” includes teachers, school personnel, family, and friends. A program that makes the school physically and socially hospitable to families and that draws families into the school requires the provision for transportation, babysitting, and translators for those families who may have these needs.


Large comprehensive high schools, they report, are not environments where a climate of nurturing can take place. Schools that promote engagement in learning require smaller venues to promote a sense of belonging by personalizing instruction, showing an interest in the student’s life, and by creating a supportive, caring environment that provides an “interface between the learner and the social context in which learning takes place” (p. 17).


Research shows that engagement in school requires both behaviors and emotions to allow students to gain not only knowledge but a sense of belonging. Schools need personnel who understand students’ need for safety, love, belonging, respect, power, and sense of accomplishment. Students who drop out, according to the research, often cite the belief that nobody cares. A caring environment can make it clear that learning is important and that students are capable of achieving. In a caring environment, not only is it important for teachers to be role models who are committed to education, but students need teachers, counselors, and peers who will encourage them to seek and take advantage of educational opportunities. A school atmosphere that encourages this involvement from everyone, both teachers and students, promotes the support needed for young people to engage and succeed.


Promoting academic achievement includes active participation, variety in instruction and activities, collaborative opportunities between faculty and with students, an emphasis on higher order thinking, a feeling of connectedness with others, and the security to make errors without negative consequences and yet succeed. “Standards and high expectations are critical, but they must be genuinely achievable if they are to motivate student achievement” (p. 58).


In addition to student motivation, teacher motivation is an important element in student engagement. Common features of schools with motivated personnel include programs where the school culture encourages teacher risk taking, self governance, professional collegiality, and strong, yet fair, leadership.


Outside of the school environment, motivating schools have district personnel who show leadership in working toward the well being of students and teachers. State and federal governments also have a role to play in providing services and a vision of student motivation to guide reform.  They must show “a clear conception of how change is to be implemented” (p. 204), planning for resources that are needed, a timeline to implement change, a public and visible accountability plan, ongoing mechanisms for examining progress, and the resources to ensure success.


In addition to the wealth of research compiled in this book, and the recommendations for schools to follow, the authors provide information on existing programs that work. This book is a solid addition to what we know about motivating students to succeed. As the authors write, “The evidence is clear that high school courses can be designed to engage urban high school students and enhance their learning” (p. 213). Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn provides research-based suggestions for encouraging academic success among all adolescents.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2318-2321
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11333, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:49:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Studer
    California Baptist University
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN STUDER is Professor and Research Coordinator for the School of Education at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. Her writing interests focus on education history, and foundations and is currently completing research on education in the 1920-30s. Her most recent book is The Teacherís Book of Days: Inspirational Passages for Every Day of the Year (Prima).
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