In part 2 of this 4-part series, Edthena CEO Adam Geller interviews Pedro Noguera, USC Dean of the School of Education, about how student engagement ultimately leads to increased student achievement.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

– Welcome to PL Together, I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video coaching platform for educators that streamlines observation and feedback. Today we’re joined by Pedro Noguera. He is the Dean at the USC School of Education and he is also someone who’s been on a school board before in addition to the classroom. So he brings a lot of different levels of understanding to the advice he offers. Pedro, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you Adam.

– So I’m curious to talk a little bit about student engagement and just thinking about obviously the ways that teaching looks very different right now. But if we kind of zoom up to the high level as you think about student engagement, how do we kind of prioritize engagement right now as we’re thinking about ensuring that the students achieve certain standards or outcomes that we want for them, like there’s a tension there, right? So how should we be thinking about student engagement maybe in service of that outcomes question?

– So good, the first thing I’d say is, we have to acknowledge and recognize that engagement is the pathway to achievement, right? That is that the way you get achievement is by getting kids thoroughly engaged in learning. But you have to then recognize that engagement is multi-dimensional, it’s behavioral our kids on task, it’s cognitive. Do they understand what they’re doing? And can they make connections to what they’re doing and what they’ve learned before and what they have to learn next? And it’s emotional. Do they really care? Are they trying their best? Are they applying themselves? When you can get all three, then that’s when learning is most powerful and most likely to result in kids retaining what they’ve learned through engagement. Now I have to warn you ’cause I had this conversation with my daughter the other day. It’s very easy for kids to trick us, right? My daughter says she fools her teachers. She pretends to be engaged sometimes because she looks like she’s participating, but she doesn’t really understand what the teachers ask them to do. And that’s because the teacher is… She’s looking at the behavioral part of engagement, but it’s not really checking for understanding. And that’s a key part that you’ve got to build in to do your teaching is you’ve got to always check for understanding. And that’s why if a kids say, do you understand? And they shake their head, say, “Okay, show me give it back to me. Let’s see.” Class time should be worked on for kids, not simply sitting and listening ’cause that’s not how kids learn. Kids don’t learn by sitting and listening. They learn by doing, they learn by applying what they’re doing or what they’re learning. And I think that too often in school and even in virtual schools, there’s too much sitting and listening going on. And I think that’s a problem for a lot of kids.

– It sounds like one of the things you’re highlighting is that this notion of making sure students understand, it could be easy to overlook that in a more virtual environment or distance teaching environment. It’d be easy to give me the thumbs-up reaction and your video conferencing software, and then great. I have a whole classroom full of thumbs-ups. So, I mean, let’s take that maybe into one more level of concreteness for an educator who’s listening to this. I mean, beyond the charge to say like, well, make sure you ask them to approve it. Like, have you been thinking about any ways that you bring engagement into that kind of more fully engaged kind of way in a virtual or distance teaching environment?

– Yeah, well, it starts by letting kids know that when you’re learning something new, you probably make mistakes, right? ‘Cause, that’s part of learning something new, you make mistakes and hopefully you learn through the mistakes. And so creating an atmosphere was okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to ask questions and really telling kids there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Otherwise, kids will just sit back on their question and they’ll nod and say, “Yeah, I got it.” And they don’t get it, right. So we want their questions and then we will teach them with a focus on evidence. So then we’re looking at the work and what is the work they produce tell us about the degree to which they really understand the concept or skill or whatever it is we’re trying to get across. So again, when I talk about digital learning is being interactive and reciprocal, it requires us as the teacher to constantly check for understanding to constantly examine the student work and if possible to do that with other teachers, because sometimes other teachers can see things in the patterns of mistakes kids are making that you may miss as a teacher.

– That’s interesting. So we’re kind of connecting the dots here between achieving kind of a productive and healthy engaged student class with the idea of professional learning, self-reflection, continuous improvement. And I think I’ll bring us back to the kind of original tension that I was highlighting, which is like the pressure to achieve. That like you should be focused on this because it will lead you to a place where your students can be ready to achieve.

– Right. But I think to achieve… We have to see achievement as the outcome that we’re after. The means to get there is through engagement, is by getting our kids to work and to apply themselves. And so that’s what we should be focused on. How do we get kids excited about learning? How do we get a motivated to learn something? How do we get them to learn something that they think they’re no good at or they’re afraid of, or they don’t like? How to trick them into learning, because sometimes you have to, right. And one of the things we know for example is if you can tap into the curiosity of kids, kids are more likely to become willing learners, right. Which is what we’re after. We don’t wanna force-feed kids. And we don’t want passive learners. We want kids who are actively learning. But for that to happen, you have to tap into the interest of kids, their curiosity. And I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how to do that with kids.

– And especially in that distance teaching context, maybe as you said before, to give them more opportunities to learn independently away from the sitting on camera, which can be tiring and may not be the type of setup for lack of a better word where that student can engage with the content and the learning you’re trying to kind of tee up for them.

– Yeah. I’ll give you an example. One of my former students, he was ninth-grade English teacher. He always had to teach English literature. So he had… His kids how to read “Hamlet” and they were not enjoying it. They didn’t like the Shakespearian language. So what he did is he started by saying, “How many of you have ever had conflicts with your mother before? Right. Been angry at your mother.” And so kids start sharing stories about times where they’ve had fights with their mother or anger. And then he says, “Well, Hamlet had issues with his mother? Right? ‘Cause he thought she was involved in killing his father,” right. And the kids like, “Oh,” now he’s got them hooked. ‘Cause now this is not simply… It’s a story about a human dilemma. It’s about treachery. It’s about betrayal. It’s not simply about this text that they’ve got to read. So he found the hook to bring them in. And that’s what I think if great teachers do that, they find the hook. How do I get my kids to care about something that’s outside of their experience? So they’ll see the value in learning it.

– And of course, if you can convince them how to do that with the material and the curriculum, you can convince them how to be lifelong learners and engage with a life of different kinds of learning with things that might be outside their experiences. Well, Pedro, this has been great. Let’s take a break. If you’re listening to this part of the conversation and wondering what we talked about before or what we’re talking about next, head to for the rest of our conversation. Pedro, we’ll be right back.