Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning


Jennifer A. Fredricks

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  • Classroom Insights from Educational Psychology Series

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    Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning

    Jennifer Fredricks


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    “There are so many things schools can do to help kids think learning is fun. I think kids are naturally inclined to want to learn, but it kind of gets killed off slowly through school.”

    While doing my research I have listened to students talk about their experiences in school. The above quote is from a study I conducted comparing youths’ experiences in school and in out-of-school contexts such as arts and sports. For many youths, school is boring, sometimes alienating, and has little relevance to their lives outside of school. Often these students only do what is required to do well on assessments and rarely exert the effort necessary for deep learning and engagement. In contrast, many of these same students report positive affective and behavioral experiences in out-of-school contexts. They talk about being excited, wanting to engage in their extracurricular activity all of the time, and being willing to exert the time and effort necessary to develop their skills in these domains.

    I also have sat in classrooms and observed many students. I have seen classrooms in which students were off-task, bored, and using only superficial strategies to regurgitate the material for an upcoming test, seemingly with little hope for deep learning over time. It is painful to sit in these classrooms and know that students are not deeply engaged. On the other hand, I have had the pleasure to be in classrooms where students were actively participating, excited about learning, and using strategies to make deep connections between ideas.

    My experiences talking to students and observing classrooms have raised several questions for me. Why is disengagement from school a shared experience for so many students? What can we learn about out-of-school settings that can be applied to classrooms? What differentiates engaging and disengaging classrooms? How do learning tasks, teacher interactions, and the peer dynamics in the classroom contribute to different levels of engagement? Is it possible to create classroom environments where all students are engaged? The purpose of this book is to tackle these questions.

    I initially became an educational researcher because I wanted to create classrooms in which deep learning and engagement take place. Over time, however, I became increasingly frustrated by how disconnected research and practice are. Although the research community has made great advances in the understanding of motivation and engagement, much of this work has had a minimal effect on educational practice. This research is often too technical and complicated. Moreover, it often fails to account for the complex realities that teachers have to face on a day-to-day basis.

    I was interested in writing this book because I saw it as a chance to present research in a way that would be accessible to teachers. To help bridge the gap between research and practice, I enlisted the help of three collaborators who teach in ethnically and economically diverse schools. They wrote vignettes describing how the research on engagement applied to their elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. I believe these sections are critical for showing other teachers that it is always possible to create more engaging classroom environments. The teachers also were instrumental in developing a list of resources that other professional educators can use to further their knowledge in each topic area. I believe we have succeeded in creating a book that is accessible to practitioners and that promotes positive change in classrooms. Our hope is that this book will help to create, classroom by classroom, schools in which deep learning and engagement become common shared experiences for students and their teachers.


    There are several people I need to thank for making this book possible. First, I want to express my gratitude to the three collaborating teachers, Ellen, Melissa, and Michele, for their suggestions on how to make this book more accessible and relevant to educators. They wrote incredible Engagement in Practice sections, provided lists of books and Web sites that are relevant for educators, and gave me suggestions on ways to make the research more applicable to the day-to-day realities in schools. It was a pleasure to work with and learn from such gifted and reflective educators. I also want to thank Andrea Levinsky, my student at Connecticut College, who helped me with finding resources, writing Text-to-Practice Exercises, and editing the text. This book would have not been possible without the love, support, and encouragement of my husband, Harvey. Thank you for being my biggest fan and taking on extra responsibilities so I could write on the weekends. I also want to thank my two boys, Jacob and Dylan; my sister Rose; and my parents, Tom and Metty, for their ongoing love and support. I also want to acknowledge the countless teachers and students who have let me into their classrooms to observe, interview, and fill out surveys, so I could gain a better understanding of motivation and engagement. Finally, I want to thank all of the teachers who are working tirelessly each day to educate our youth. Being an effective teacher is the most difficult and underappreciated job in this world. I hope one day you will get the respect and admiration you deserve.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    Patricia Baker, NBCT

    Teacher, Gifted Education

    Fauquier County Public Schools, Bealeton, VA

    Ellen E. Coulson

    7th Grade U.S. History Teacher

    Sig Rogich Middle School, Las Vegas, NV

    Patti Grammens


    Lakeside Middle School, Cumming, GA

    About the Author

    Jennifer A. Fredricks is a professor of human development at Connecticut College, where she also directs the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. She has published over thirty-five peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on student engagement, family socialization, adolescent development, and extracurricular participation. She is currently working on a three-year grant on student engagement in math and science classrooms that is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

    About the Contributors

    Melissa Dearborn is an educator, consultant, and instructional coach, with a special interest in how relationships impact student engagement. For the past sixteen years, she has been a teacher and instructional coach at the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, Connecticut. Over a twenty-year career, Melissa has worked with students from preschool through eighth grade and has taught a preservice literacy course for undergraduate students at Connecticut College. She received her undergraduate degree from Goddard College and her master's in teaching from Connecticut College. In addition to classroom teaching, Melissa has consulted on school climate, become a certified facilitator of the Expressive Arts through Salve Regina University, practiced Expressive Arts with Alzheimer's patients, and designed curriculum and teacher training for a girls’ school in Kenya.

    Ellen Cavanaugh is in her third year as an English teacher at the Norwich Free Academy, an independent school in Norwich, Connecticut. She teaches five heterogeneously grouped students from urban and rural communities across a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Ellen enjoys experimenting with different teaching methods, activities, and assessments to meet the needs of her students while at the same time challenging them to become active agents who use the resources provided for them to construct their own knowledge. She received her undergraduate degree in English and teaching certification from Connecticut College where she focused on critical pedagogy and teaching for social justice.

    Michele Herro has worked as a teacher in the Chicago public schools since 2006, teaching fifth grade her first year and then moving to fourth grade. Her pre-K-8 school has a diverse population, and her classrooms include many special education students and English language learners. Michele has led and participated in teacher study groups that focused on student engagement through inquiry in the areas of research, reading, and writing. Before teaching, she worked as an after-school program coordinator for middle and high school students. After graduating from college, Michele spent a year in the Philippines as a fellow with an educational NGO and school. She received her bachelor's in psychology from Duke University and her master's degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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