Canadian students are disengaging from learning at an alarming rate, with only 37% feeling invested in learning. Statistics show that 25% of students who drop out of school report feeling disengaged and having low confidence in their ability (known as self-efficacy). Research shows that student disengagement starts as early as 9 years old and worsens as they get older. Allowing students to teach younger children will foster their emotional well-being, build their confidence and help them develop a sense of purpose for learning.
Motivation and the brain.
How does this relate to the brain? In my opinion, disengagement can be caused by several factors including low intrinsic motivation, low self-esteem or high anxiety. All of these stem from the brain. When a student receives a reward (intrinsically or extrinsically) the brain activates its reward pathway (see Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) in the picture), giving them a pleasurable feeling. We can all activate this pathway through natural methods (exercise, eating certain foods, drinking water when thirsty) or "unnatural methods" such as drugs, alcohol or video games (they give you a feeling of pleasure and your brain wants more). Although scientists have not discovered the hidden secret to unlocking every student's intrinsic motivation in the classroom, there is some research that points towards; autonomy, competency and relatedness. Giving them the opportunity to select what they want young kids to learn and using science as a subject to get them curious about the world around them are unique ways to help engage students in the classroom and increase their motivation. If they are feeling defeated by school and feel that they are not good enough, slowly working at their confidence through having them teach others will translate into more positive talk in the classroom, better confidence and engage them in learning.
Bring back "play" in learning and children will be engaged!
When a student is struggling in school we often seek subject-specific tutors. However, even if they understand the material very well, having negative self-talk while studying or writing an exam can lower your grades (i.e. "I suck at math, I will probably fail this test"). We need more programs that allow students and children to forget about the subject and simply learn while playing and having fun. Instead of sitting down to practice reading, perform a science experiment while following the instructions or follow a recipe. Play is so important in learning, especially at a young age. Here in Montreal, grade 1 students have told me they can have 1 hour of homework every night. I don't think that is right, and I believe this contributes to disengagement. I will never forget what an education professor at Harvard said at the start of her class a few years ago. She said, "All children are born curious and curiosity is what allows us to learn. Unfortunately, the minute a child enters the classroom, curiosity is killed...this is what our current education system is doing". This needs to change.