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Six Types of High-School Students and How they Engage in School

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “What Teens Want from Their Schools” by Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli in The Education Gadfly, June 28, 2017 (Vol. 17, #26),; the full report, “What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High-School Student Engagement,” is available here.
In this Education Gadfly article, Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli affirm that student engagement is indeed a key factor in reducing the number of students who fail and drop out. What keeps students engaged? Engaging teachers, engaging subject matter, some specific instructional strategies, students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, peers, and extracurricular activities and sports.
In a national survey of 2,000 grade 10-12 students, researchers commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute dug deeper and found that boredom in high school is not nearly as pervasive as is commonly believed: 83-95 percent of students reported being cognitively engaged – that is, motivated to apply themselves in school by thinking deeply, listening carefully, and completing assignments. The researchers went on to identify six student subgroups with distinct engagement profiles:
• Subject lovers (19 percent) – These students are more likely than their peers to say academic classes are their favorite thing about school; they’re motivated by learning new and challenging material and many expect to attend four-year colleges.
• Emotionals (18 percent) – While not top academic performers, these students feel positively about school and often don’t want to stop working at the end of a class. They thrive in smaller schools that foster connection.
• Hand raisers (18 percent) – These students apply themselves in the classroom and do fairly well but appear uninterested in other school offerings and homework.
• Social butterflies (16 percent) – These students enjoy the social aspects of school – sports, hanging out with friends – and are much more likely than other students to report feeling they belong at school, matter to others, and are generally understood and respected.
• Teacher responders (16 percent) – These students value close relationships with educators and thrive when they feel adults are invested in them academically and personally.
• Deep thinkers (15 percent) – These students listen carefully in class, like to figure things out on their own, complete assignments, and take tests seriously.
“Interestingly,” say Northern and Petrilli, “how a student engages in school is not strongly associated with his or her gender, race, current school type, or socioeconomic background. In other words, students of all backgrounds fall within each of these engagement types.” The study’s findings suggest three conclusions:
First, the vast majority of U.S. high-school students say they are trying hard and want to do their best in school. Kids say they’re working hard in class, paying attention to things they’re supposed to remember, and following up when things don’t make sense. “Teachers should support and maximize this hard-wired desire on students’ part to think and reason autonomously,” say Northern and Petrilli.
Second, students engage in school for at least six different reasons. “Tailoring schooling and instruction to such needs, preferences, and tendencies,” say the authors, “has the potential to pay dividends in greater engagement – and ultimately in achievement gains.”
Third, engagement and choice go hand in hand; a one-size-fits-all system is bound to leave some students out, so educators should work to maximize choices of teachers, courses, delivery options, instructional strategies, programs, schools-within-schools, and schools.

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