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Close the Achievement Gap by Increasing Student Engagement

Riverside Insights
Written By Riverside Insights
On May 24, 2022
5 minute read
Close the Achievement Gap by Increasing Student Engagement

A summary of “The Achievement Gap: Using Strength-based Pedagogy to Increase the Achievement of All Students” by Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli 


Since 1960, the United States has spent well over three trillion dollars on education reform. Somehow, this large monetary investment has resulted mostly in flat line student growth, boredom among students, and public dissatisfaction with the educational system. Disadvantaged and low-income students have been hit hardest by the mismanagement of funds and a lack of courage to challenge unsuccessful initiatives, resulting in too many students lacking the critical thinking skills needed to successfully participate in higher education and the global economy. Though some education reform initiatives have resulted in higher standardized test scores, most initiatives have masked deeper problems like dropout rates, test result falsification, data juggling, and the de-emphasis of subjects other than math and reading. 


Over the years, the focus has shifted from student needs and appropriate pedagogy to test achievement scores and the reputations of administrators. Most reform initiatives to date have been built off structural changes and have drawn upon a low-level prescriptive and didactic pedagogy. These approaches to learning emphasize accumulation, storage, and retrieval of information. We should instead be focused on developing students’ abilities to think, reason, and be creative, and on fostering problem solving skills that allow students to utilize information in engaging ways, not just remember and regurgitate it.

Students who don’t achieve are stuck with the age-old “drill and practice” methods of instruction, which promote boredom and lack of engagement, absenteeism, and high dropout rates. All learning occurs on three spectrums: from deductive to inductive, didactic to investigative, and prescriptive to inquiry-oriented. Current initiatives emphasize deductive, didactic, prescriptive learning because they prepare students to succeed at filling out test worksheets rather than actually learning essential skills and learning how to learn. According to an international PISA study (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2007),  the single criterion that distinguished nations with the highest and lowest levels of student achievement was the degree to which students were engaged in their studies.


How to Engage Students

First, we must identify what engagement really means. Loosely defined, it’s the enthusiasm that students have when they work on something they’re personally interested in and that they pursue with an inductive and investigative approach to learning. This type of learning works to develop enthusiasm based on individual learning styles and modes of expression.


By engaging students, we can tend to the development of these essential abilities Planning a task and considering alternatives Monitoring one’s understanding and the need for additional information Identifying patter

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Engagement is even more important for students whose achievement has been hampered by limited experiences, resources, or support. In order to instill enthusiasm and engage students, we must stop focusing on memorizing content and focus instead on building the kinds of thinking skills listed above. We need to develop accountability procedures--not just tests--that show us how well students are learning to apply their thinking to authentic problem solving situations.

Engagement comes from choice, too. Allowing students to self-select what they want to learn to an extent (through the use of enrichment programs in particular) encourages engagement. Motivationally rich experiences promote a genuine enthusiasm for learning. We always do a better job when we work on something we personally care about. Students are no different!


How to Create a 21st Century Pedagogy

Let’s take a moment to examine how technology has revolutionized learning. It seems the last time we used technology to standardize materials and include larger numbers of students in our classrooms was with the advent of inventions like the copy machine and printing press. The sad truth is that education has not benefited from imaginative applications of technology the way other industries have, and the technology we do use contributes mostly to the same “drill and practice” methods of teaching that we know don’t work. So what’s to be done?


Thankfully, the next generation of educational technology is finally coming our way, and we can use it to develop differentiation and efficiency in the classroom in order to enhance student engagement. Through the use of technology, we can encourage students to seek “just-in-time” knowledge, the kind of information that is sought when it’s necessary to solve a problem. Here’s how an online tool like Renzulli Learning can help: 


  1. This technology is able to comprehensively assess student strengths to get a good look at all of a student’s major characteristics. The more teachers know about the various dimensions of a learner, the better their decisions about what materials and activities have the highest potential for engaging that learner. 
  2. We can also match resources to student profiles. A programmed system can parse huge amounts of student resources and match them to the students who would benefit from them the most at a rate that a single teacher simply can’t achieve. This level of differentiation accounts for high levels of diversity within the student body, and cuts down on weeks or months of work trying to identify which resources each student needs. The easy availability of resources also encourages engagement.
  3. It also streamlines teacher training. Teachers have long complained about useless, redundant training with catchy taglines and less-than-effective tools. Training teachers how to use one tool that actually serves their purposes of increasing students’ involvement in their own learning will make the training process much more efficient. 

We need an evolutionary education reform approach in favor of a revolutionary one, with incremental steps that venture into new technological territory in order to circumvent the influence of the textbook and test publishing industries. It’s time to put student engagement first in order to remedy the achievement gap. It comes down to one powerful mantra: No Student Left Bored.


About Renzulli Learning 

Renzulli Learning delivers a rigorous personalized learning environment for ALL students in grades Pre-K through 12. Renzulli Learning enables teachers to easily differentiate instruction, increase motivation and personalize talent development for each student, providing the tools and resources to increase engagement and achievement with our student-led Project Based Learning (PBL) platform that unpacks the abilities in all children.


Learn More About Renzulli Learning


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