This post began with a lunch-time conversation with Cristina Trujillo, a veteran teacher at Aragon High School who was once in a Stanford University class I team taught with Lee Swenson, a high school social studies teacher nearly 20 years ago. I have stayed in touch with Lee, Cristina, and others in her Curriculum & Instruction class over the years even gathering former students for a mini-reunion a few months ago.
Last month, I visited Cristina’s ninth grade world history class and those of four other social studies colleagues. The follow-up lunch conversation she and I were having was about what I saw in the five social studies classes and particularly what I observed in her class.
Over the decades, I have had many such conversations with teachers after visiting their classes. I avoid making global evaluations of the lesson (e.g., “Great lesson!” “You are a fine teacher,” “Students were disengaged with the content and gave you a hard time”). Instead, I ask teachers what they wanted to accomplish in their lesson then I report back to them what I saw avoiding loaded words whenever possible.
So I asked Cristina, over our salads, what she wanted from her lesson on the Industrial Revolution about worker militancy involving a political cartoon that she and the class analyzed. She told me. I then reported my observations one of which was about a group of 10 students (there were 27 in the class) who had participated a great deal in the guided discussion that Cristina had led .
That intense voluntary participation of the students led me to recount my recent experiences sitting in a dozen classes in two urban high schools, largely minority and poor, in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. I talked at length about students’ behavioral compliance that was obvious to me but showing little academic interest in the subjects of late 19th-century European imperialism and the Civil Rights movement in American history. In only one classroom did I see students ignore the teacher’s direction and become unruly. In four of those dozen lessons, however, I did see a handful of students participate–meaning that they answered teacher questions with vigor and seeming interest. In all of the classes, no more than half of the students, and in many others even less, turned in worksheets at the end of the period or homework that the teacher had assigned (see here, here and here).
I compared my experiences in those history classrooms with what I saw in Cristina’s class and the lessons I observed of her Aragon High School* colleagues where I noted different degrees of student engagement with the content and overall behavioral compliance.
We then segued to her class and the clutch of high-participation students who seemingly had bought into the class. Cristina and I then began to discuss what compliance meant behaviorally and academically and the difference between compliance and student buy-in. Neither of us were familiar with the psychological literature on student engagement and behavioral compliance (or non-compliance). We were two teachers trying to make sense of what both of us have experienced in teaching students for decades.
Here is what we came up with from our experiences teaching history in different schools at different times. There are two kinds of students: ones who minimally follow the behavioral rules and complete academic work; and those students who go beyond minimal compliance and buy-into–demonstrate engagement–in the academic content with varying degrees of enthusiasm (we excluded a third type of student who disengaged completely from the class).
*Most students minimally comply with classroom rules and do enough academic work–most teacher use point systems for homework, quizzes, daily participation, extra credit, etc.–to gain passing or what they consider satisfactory grades.
*A small to large fraction of students in every class have bought-in to the academic content and daily lessons . They participate often in discussions, ask substantive questions, disagree with the teacher, and explore puzzling issues before or after class.
*We agreed that the reasons for buy-in varied among those students. Some bought into the class because they were primarily after the “A” grade. Others were genuinely captured by the intellectual content of the questions, discussions, and assignments. And a few were inspired by the teacher, who she or he was, and the enthusiasm for the subject-matter that both student and teacher shared.
*Of course, we said to one another, that there were also mixes of buy-in and compliant behavior depending on the lesson content, how the teacher was on a particular day, and events over which neither students or teacher had control.
As Cristina and I wound down our two-hour lunch–she had finished her teaching early in the afternoon–we ended up talking about what she and I had to do to create the conditions in which student buy-in could occur. We agreed that early in the school year, the teacher had to create within each class, a feeling of community anchored in trust. Such trust-building took time but was an essential condition for any degree of student commitment to the class. Such engagement shows up in students asking questions, taking risks in their answers and actions, and seeking more access to the teacher.
After lunch while I was walking to my car, I again–for the zillionth time–realized how dependent teachers are on their students for both compliance and buy-in, neither of which in this day and age are automatic.
* In 2012, Aragon High School had 1500 students in grades 9-12. Fifty-six percent of the students were minority (Latino, Asian, Filipino, Native Hawaiian/South Sea islander, and African American). Nearly one-third were white and the rest were multiracial. Just over 15 percent were “socioeconomically disadvantaged’ and a similar percentage were English Language Learners.
On California Standards Tests, except for math, Aragon students exceeded by sizable margins district and state scores. Ninety-five percent of the students graduated.