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ROB BRISK

The extraordinarily obvious revolution in education

At work or at school are you engaged? Or do you think it’s a grind? Do you find the work challenging and love it? Or do you find it unchallenging and hate it? Do you feel that you’re making an impact? To help you answer these questions, look at the 4-quadrant grid below. Now think about your work or a particular task or class and put a dot on the spot in the grid that best matches your feeling.

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That dot can help you understand where you are on the spectrum of being engaged, bored, entertained, or in a grind. This measure, known as the Wellington Engagement Index (WEI), was conceived by Rob Brisk, Head of The Wellington School, an independent college-preparatory educational institution serving preschool through grade 12.

 

When each student in a Wellington classroom places a dot on this grid, it creates a visualization of class engagement. A lot of activity in the upper right quadrant, then the teacher is on track. If the dots congregate in the lower right, the teacher knows that more challenge needs to be introduced. The index can also be used to assess a student’s schedule. One student can plot a dot for each class in their course load to see how challenged and engaged they are throughout the day (see below).

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“One thing is absolutely certain,” he says, “the most effective learning comes when students love to learn.”

The WEI, which Brisk says in a “Weeee” roller-coaster kind of way, gives educators and administrators a constellation of data and empowers teachers, students, and parents with real-time, live, actionable data to make immediate changes in learning experiences. For example, if students in a particular course are asked about where they are on this spectrum, and they place themselves in the grind category, the teacher now knows that the work is too hard and not engaging students. If the class is engaging for 80% of the class, then a teacher can analyze further to understand why and make changes to engage that last 20%.

 

All kinds of parameters can be observed with the WEI software. The school can look at data with regard to particular courses, grade levels, individual teachers, individual students, groupings by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic levels, etc. It might even inform schools on how to best match particular teachers and students. It can even help define some of the nuances between similar classes.

 

For example, during our interview, Brisk showed a 9th grade grouping in both English literature and English composition. Although grades were fairly similar in both classes, the WEI reports that, the same students labeled their composition class as ‘the grind,’ while the literature class was labeled as engaged. This is not information you can get from just letter grades or test scores. It tells us that grades are not an accurate marker of engagement. A student could have an A in a class, but be disengaged because he or she is entertained, but not challenged. Another student could have a B or C, but be completely challenged and engaged. Awareness of these subtle differences, believes Brisk, can create a more effective educational environment.

 

For Brisk, the goal is to create a learning community in which everyone is engaged. “One thing is absolutely certain,” he says, “the most effective learning comes when students love to learn. Schools must redefine successful educational outcomes to include more than grades, test scores, and cognitive learning. When students love to learn, they will leave the Wellington School wanting more.”

 

Brisk has been an educator for 37 years. When asked if it’s a risk to promote this assessment method in an educational environment that is enamored and dependent on standardized testing, he says that the greater risk is the “reliance of holding on to standardized testing that directs policy for education.” He asks thoughtfully, “How long do we go with a failed strategy that misses the point of education?”

 

Although this metric is the brainchild of a few top faculty at the Wellington School, it’s clear that Brisk has been thinking about this topic deeply for quite some time. He chose to work in independent schools because he knew he could have autonomy to develop his ideas without the bindings of state testing and reporting. In fact, the one motivation for developing the WEI is that the state has been pressuring independent schools to participate in standardized testing to demonstrate college readiness. Brisk says, “this is truly laughable when 100% of our students go on to college and the vast majority finish in four years!”

At Wellington, the WEI has been rolled out in grades 4-12 and is providing reliable data. Currently, teachers are trying to see if they can use the same metric with younger students.

 

Other schools have also become interested. Currently, five independent schools in the midwest and a parochial school in Maryland are using this tool. Kansas public schools have recently expressed an interest. These schools get software, the WEI Data Explorer, and some norming data to help them understand their results. This tool can be used at any time, and students report their responses in about three minutes from a computer, tablet, or smart phone. Within days, changes can be made to gain better student engagement.

 

Students may never have been asked such questions, so it takes a moment of self-reflection; knowing that their responses will be taken seriously drives them to invest in the process.

 

It is important to acknowledge that there are barriers to even conceiving, let alone implementing, this method in public schools, beholden to public governance and financing. Brisk recognizes that, “because independent (private) schools do not have to contend with high stakes testing, are not governed by elective boards, and are not generally unionized, that implementation is significantly easier.”

When asked if he considers this a revolution in education, Brisk exasperatedly responds, “It is revolutionary and extraordinarily obvious!”

 

“We believe that wherever you make student engagement a high priority whether in public, private, or parochial schools, the barriers can be overcome. This is, above all else, a priority issue. As long as high stakes testing is the highest priority, schools will pursue success in that area before any other. We believe that there is no higher priority than ensuring that we help children become people who love learning and will continue to love learning throughout their lives.”

 

Although this tool is designed for schools, it has the potential to be used to measure engagement in just about any activity and any group of people. Potentially, it can be applied to any aspect of work or life.

 

So, let’s ask this question again—At work or at school, are you engaged, bored, entertained, or do you think it’s a grind? Do you find the work challenging and love it or do you find it unchallenging and hate it? Use the graphic to figure out if you need to make any changes, and take the risk to make the change.

 

Rashmi Nemade is a principal at BioMedText, Inc. and a Wellington parent.

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