Adding Friction. A Librarian Asks, "How Do I Get the 'Passive Middle' Engaged in Library Research?"
We've all encountered passive students. They do what's assigned, don't ask questions, and submit their work—but something's clearly missing. Passion? Joy? Investment? Effort? Curiosity? We can't quite put our finger on the cause but we do sense their apathy and see their lackluster performance.
Over the last twelve years, the Gallup Student Poll has surveyed students about conditions related to their involvement in and enthusiasm for school.1 Over time they've documented an increase in disengagement that emerges in middle school and snowballs in high school.2
There are good reasons for educators to be concerned. Anecdotally we are aware that discipline problems increase and academic success plummets when students are disinterested.3
I See You. I Hear You.
Our professional literature offers abundant examples of ways to build on student-identified interests. Librarians organize book clubs, feature popular authors or genres, and design space for quiet learning, or social making.4 Others involve students in the library's management.5
Passive students are an enigma. Some seem to avoid participating (behavioral disengagement); while others appear detached from the school, teachers, or peers (emotional disengagement); and still others shy away from the effort that's needed to master content or skills (cognitive disengagement).6 Without insight on the form of disengagement, we're apt to apply a good solution to the wrong problem.
What Do You Think? What Do You Feel?
Rather than assuming that highly verbal students represent all students, we want to ask the quiet ones about their apathy in ways that don't feel intrusive, such as one-question exit tickets, short verbal exchanges, or quick reflection prompts. To get a sense of their cognitive commitment, one librarian asks students to number their top three topics in order of preference and explain why they've ordered them that way. To assess their emotional state, another has students create two Twitter posts labeled #feelgood and #feelworried before a project begins. A third, building on the digital citizenship skills she's teaching, focuses on students' participation. About half-way through an assignment, students create a whimsical clip in TikToK (with privacy controls on) to show what they're feeling and thinking. According to Gail Bush, an award-winning librarian and educator, such humorous interludes—like verbal banter or puns—lighten the atmosphere, shift how students relate to the content, and engage their creativity.7
If you're interested in creating your own survey, you can modify the "Student Engagement Instrument" which assesses the perceptions of the cognitive and affective drivers of engagement that each student believes is present or absent from their school experience.8 Short tasks that involve choice-making, ranking, explaining, and creating can provide you with a rough sense of each student's motivational characteristics before or during instruction.
Once you have a sense of why they're unmotivated, small shifts in your instruction can address disengagement by communicating your confidence in their abilities and offering support tailored to individuals. Instructional nudges can include how you greet students and what you say as they work. In a study of ten diverse classrooms in two middle schools in the Pacific Northwest, researchers evaluated the efficacy of Positive Greetings at the Door (PGD), a procedure intended to minimize problem behaviors during transitions from one class to another and improve students' readiness to learn.9 While PGD has been designed to minimize disruptive behaviors, their strategies can be repurposed to communicate to the quiet middle that you "see" them from the moment they enter the library and are ready to support and encourage them as they learn. Here's one possible formulation of those instructional interventions geared toward motivation and engagement:
- Action: Positively connect with each student as they enter the library using a verbal or nonverbal greeting (e.g., acknowledge the student by name, express welcome, nod in approval).
Purpose: to increase each student's sense of social belonging and promote a positive classroom climate.
- Action: Informally review engaged behaviors you have noticed as fruitful prior to beginning classwork.
Purpose: A precorrective description of behaviors reminds students of their autonomy, that they have the power to do what will help them feel successful and involved.
- Action: Privately encourage individuals who have previously exhibited unengaged behaviors.
Purpose: Communicates your belief that the student is capable of becoming interested and involved this time.
- Action: Offer behavior-specific praise as students work to reinforce the desired behaviors.
Purpose: Noticing students' being successful rewards them and encourages their classmates to align their own efforts.
While our profession continues to market our long-term value in following students through the grades, in practice our contact with older students, grades, and classes depends on factors beyond our control. School culture, collaboration, and equity are difficult, even intransigent, problems which we may not be able to solve. It is ironic that Gallup has documented that student engagement is dropping in middle- and high-school students at the same time that our access to them is also declining.
Nonetheless, the impact of positive teacher-student relationships is well documented. By making small changes in instruction that communicate your interest in each student's social, emotional and intellectual needs, you can contribute to the academic success of and involvement in and enthusiasm for school of every student you do teach. There's no justification for ignoring the silent middle.
References (Chicago style)
Bush, Gail. "Creativity Literacy: The Library Media Center as a Learning Laboratory." School Library Media Activities Monthly, February 2008. https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2200954.
Busteed, Brandon. "The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops with Each School Year." Gallup. Last modified January 7, 2013. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/170525/school-cliff-student-engagement-drops-school-year.aspx.
Cook, Clayton R., Aria Fiat, Madeline Larson, Christopher Daikos, Tal Slemrod, Elizabeth A. Holland, Andrew J. Thayer, and Tyler Renshaw. "Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy ." Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 20, no. 3 (2018): 149-59. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300717753831.
Corwin. "Visible Learning MetaX." Corwin Visible Learning Plus. Accessed November 27, 2019. http://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/.
Fredricks, Jennifer A., Phyllis C. Blumenfeld, and Alison H. Paris. "School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence ." Review of Educational Research 74, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 59-109. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543074001059.
Hodges, Tim. "School Engagement Is More than Just Talk." Gallup. Accessed November 21, 2019. https://www.gallup.com/education/244022/school-engagement-talk.aspx.
Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. "The Student Engagement Instrument." Check and Connect. Last modified November 11, 2019. http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/sei/default.html.
Kowalski, Susan. "Student Voice in the Library. Engagement." Video file, 09:27. Student Voice in the Library: Engagement. December 2017. https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2078600.
Lopez, Shane J., and Valerie J. Calderon. "Gallup Student Poll: Measuring and Promoting What Is Right with Students." In Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work, and Society, edited by Stewart I. Donaldson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Jeanne Nakamura, 117-33. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Reckmeyer, Mark. "Focus on Student Engagement for Better Academic Outcomes." Gallup. Last modified October 30, 2019. https://www.gallup.com/education/267521/focus-student-engagement-better-academic-outcomes.aspx.
Techman, Melissa. "Beyond Junior Shelvers: Involving Students in Creative Library Work." School Library Connection, February 2016, 43-44. http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/1999050.
1 Shane J. Lopez and Valerie J. Calderon, "Gallup Student Poll: Measuring and Promoting What Is Right with Students," in Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Health, Schools, Work, and Society, ed. Stewart I. Donaldson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Jeanne Nakamura (New York: Routledge, 2011).
2 Brandon Busteed, "The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops with Each School Year," Gallup, last modified January 7, 2013, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/170525/school-cliff-student-engagement-drops-school-year.aspx.
3 Mark Reckmeyer, "Focus on Student Engagement for Better Academic Outcomes," Gallup, last modified October 30, 2019, https://www.gallup.com/education/267521/focus-student-engagement-better-academic-outcomes.aspx.
4 Melissa Techman, "Beyond Junior Shelvers: Involving Students in Creative Library Work," School Library Connection, February 2016, http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/1999050.
5 Susan Kowalski, "Student Voice in the Library. Engagement," video file, 09:27, Student Voice in the Library: Engagement, December 2017, https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2078600?learningModuleId=2078594.
6 Jennifer A. Fredricks, Phyllis C. Blumenfeld, and Alison H. Paris, "School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence," Review of Educational Research 74, no. 1 (Spring 2004): https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543074001059.
7 Gail Bush, "Creativity Literacy: The Library Media Center as a Learning Laboratory," School Library Media Activities Monthly, February 2008, https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2200954.
8 Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, "The Student Engagement Instrument," Check and Connect, last modified November 11, 2019, http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/sei/default.html.
9 Clayton R. Cook et al., "Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy," Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 20, no. 3 (2018): https://doi.org/10.1177/1098300717753831.