Black Swallowtail butterfly resting on a hand

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

“…when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home. It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.”

Geez … and what’s wrong with that picture? Isn’t that what we learned in our teacher training?

I re-read a fascinating blog entry written by Principal Lori Cullen, and I can’t agree more with her words of wisdom. In these next months, as I plan August professional development for the teachers at my new school, I will be pondering this basic idea – that when children are engaged, they are learning, and when they are “off-task,” they aren’t. This foundational fact is not rocket science, but it is one of the most important and misconstrued tenets in teaching. As we continue to talk, as a nation, about teacher evaluations and standardized test scores, and “failing schools,” and unacceptably high rates of illiteracym and numbers of students who are not graduating from high school … it becomes clearer and clearer how evaluating what is effective teaching becomes a game of high-stakes educational roulette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Teachers need tools, and sometimes teachers need training. We didn’t learn everything we needed to know in teacher training – the world has changed.

Principal Lori asks, should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement? Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them? And she provides two visuals to explain the answer with a resounding, “YES, teachers are responsible!” And teachers need support in figuring out how to be effective in designing lessons that engage students. But it can be done – to the benefit of all.

Principal Cullens gives a list of the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement and tells us, task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behavior from students. In the end, it is not the student who is at fault. When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off-task behavior, I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behavior.

In my own teaching career, I have observed many students who have been caught in this trap of shame and blame (for not engaging in their lessons) and who ultimately slid through the cracks of the educational system – with reprehensible negative life-changing consequences. In many cases, I believe, it didn’t have to end that way. And I also believe we can learn from those mistakes.

Teachers can design lessons that engage children in behaviors that result in meaningful learning. Students can sit in the driver’s seat (rather than the passenger seat) for their own learning. This summer, I will be reading and thinking and rethinking about this basic foundational tenet as I work with my colleagues to figure out what tools the teachers and students need in their toolbox to accomplish this important task of creating a school where all children can learn the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in school and adult life. My mantra is now, yes, we can! Together we can do it. And I am looking forward, with pleasure, to the new school year at Experiencia Preparatory Academy.


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