In the zone

Are Canadian students "intellectually disengaged"?

As students, we are so often concerned with the ideals of education – that lofty vision to learn most effectively, aim for personal growth, and enhance our unique capacities. For several consecutive years, Canada has been in the top six out of 41 countries around the globe in test scores for reading, writing, and science. Yet, it is only the 29th in the world for student engagement in studies, the school, and the community. At a talk at the annual ArtsSmarts learning symposium in Montreal last Tuesday, “Education Today in Canada: What Are Students Telling Us,” Penny Milton, the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Education Association, explains her viewpoint on these issues.

Of these three insufficiencies, Penny Milton is most concerned with “intellectual engagement” – the emotional and cognitive investment in learning. According to a study on Canadian schools, 63 per cent of students fail to attain intellectual engagement; they have no motivation for what they learn. Moreover, this problem for students begins to worsen from grade six – where real studying begins. Most notably, student groups with high-versus-low intellectual engagement differed not in their home environments, but in their school experience.

The effects of school environments on students may be explained in part by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of “flow.” When we’re in “flow,” we are so deeply focused on a task, that we lose track of all space and time; this intense, almost trance-like concentration in that task brings us an enormous satisfaction. Yet, to reach this deeply rewarding state of flow, we must balance our “skills” with the “challenge” of that particular task. When both our skills and the challenge level are low, we are apathetic. High skills and low challenge leads to boredom, while low skills and high challenge provide anxiety. The best balance would be having a highly-skilled person matched with an equally challenging job.

Using Csikszentmihalyi’s model, 8,427 high school students were studied for their attitudes toward the language arts. Seven per cent were “apathetic” about the subject, 19 per cent were “anxious,” and 31 per cent simply bored. Only 43 per cent, less than half of the students, experienced “flow” and genuinely enjoyed what they were learning.

In the light of this problem, Milton exhorts that we must improve and transform our education system. Teaching should veer from mere instruction to a designed learning experience; learning must turn from facts and content to real problem-solving. All in all, she emphasizes the overwhelming importance of fully engaging the students. Only then will they actively change themselves and strive for personal growth and success.