-by Jon Bergmann-
This month a Twitter storm erupted around a tweet by Robert Marzano when he tweeted:
“Students’ attention and engagement are directly under the control of the classroom teacher. There is no reason any student should be systematically bored, inattentive, or disengaged in any class at any grade level. #studentengagement”
Many took issue with Dr. Marzano’s tweet because when he said, “there is no reason…” it appears that he is completely laying the blame of unengaged students at the feet of teachers. Guilting teachers into compliance is not the answer, many said. And though I don’t completely agree with his tweet, I know that there is some truth behind it.
As a 24-year classroom teacher, I worked hard to try to reach every student every day. Admittedly though, I didn’t engage all of my students every day. Sometimes it was because of things beyond my control. Often it was my own inabilities. I recall a young man whose father was in jail because of abusing him. His father was soon to be released, and this young man was really hard to reach. I wish I could tell you that I transformed this young man’s life. But frankly, I think I only scratched the surface trying to reach him, despite my best efforts over the course of a school year.
There is another reason why students are unengaged. It’s the system. The traditional education system is broken and isn’t working for the vast majority of students and teachers. I have often cited Dr. Marzano’s research where he looked at two million classrooms (it is hard to argue with two million data points), where he found that only 6% of class time in the United States is being used for cognitively complex tasks.
There is a danger, though, in blaming the system. It could lead many of us to just throw up our hands and say, “It can’t be changed,” or, “I have no agency to change it.” I know that each teacher has the power to make a difference and to change what we have control over, namely what happens in our classes.
In the last 11 years, I have had the privilege of working with countless teachers all over the world helping them move from passive to active learning by flipping their instruction. Teachers in every imaginable scenario from K-12 to higher education, affluent schools to “alternative” schools are reporting profoundly increased capacity to reach every student, in all of their classes, every day. Their reports are likely inflated by their zeal, but the tales of extraordinary student engagement are largely true. They have essentially hacked the system to recover more time to engage with students. They are engaging them both cognitively, but probably, more importantly, effectively. I can’t tell you the number of emails and discussions I have had with teachers who were about to give up on education but now have a renewed sense of purpose and connection with their students.
When Emotions Disrupt Teaching
But, let’s return to the tweetstorm and the blogs that followed. Shortly after Dr. Marzano’s tweet, blogger Pernille Ripp jumped in with her thoughts. She goes after Dr. Marzano’s tweet writing, “It is hard to sometimes believe you are of any kind of worth when you are constantly reminded of all the things you should be doing if only you were a great teacher.” I feel her pain. It never feels good to be told you aren’t enough. And when I read the comments about her post, I saw many teachers who feel underappreciated and fed up. Pernille also wrote, “…who I am supposed to be learning from in education keeps being the same white, male, non-classroom teachers that keep telling me, this classroom teacher, what I need to do to be the perfect teacher.”
Pernille Ripp’s post was not the only one that jumped on Dr. Marzano’s tweet. Nicholas Provenzano (The Nerdy Teacher) wrote a post titled Be More Than a Hashtag where he also goes after Dr. Marzano and says: “Being absent from the classroom for too long can cause this type of empty thinking.”
Many of the Twitter replies to Dr. Marzano were vicious. They discounted his lifetime of work to education and blamed him for many of the problems in education.
After the tweet was sent, Dr. Marzano tweeted back:
Feeling Blamed, Blaming Others
I have several observations about both of these posts and the comments on Twitter directed at Dr. Marzano:
- The sheer viciousness of the attacks. We now live in a society that is ever ready and willing to demonize and destroy somebody over a tweet. Dr. Marzano’s tweet offered all of us an opportunity to start a discussion on rethinking our beliefs about student engagement. Are we willing to admit to ourselves that some of our bored, unengaged students might be that way because of us? Despite “the system” and the myriad circumstances beyond our control, to the extent that we can improve the levels of student engagement, shouldn’t we?
- Introducing the Race Card: I was taken back by Pernille’s reference to “white male non-classroom teachers.” I would hope that the skin color or gender of an educator or expert has nothing to do with their ideas. Further, are active classroom teachers the only valid source of ideas on teaching and learning?
- The starkness of the “sides”: We clearly live in polarizing times. If we in education are unable to find common ground and have civil discourse, who can we look to for guidance, leadership, and modeling?
The Hidden Social Emotional Factors
Behind all of the bitter dialogue around Dr. Marzano’s tweets, there was something very apparent. Teachers are tired. Teachers are underappreciated. Teachers feel like they have no voice. As I read their posts and tweets, I realized that we must find ways for teachers to be supported. We must find ways for teachers to support themselves. We talk about the social and emotional support of students, but these posts point out that there is also a huge need for social and emotional support for teachers. This means we need to put Maslow before Bloom’s for both students and teachers. The social and emotional needs of teachers matter. Because if we want to reach every student in every class every day, we must first reach every teacher!