We have a major problem plaguing Australia's schools with implications that are frightening for the future of our country. Gallup research suggests that Australian students become less engaged as they make their way through the school system. In other words, the longer students stay in school, the less involved with and enthusiastic about school they become.
Through the second administration of Australia's Gallup Student Poll, we surveyed a convenience sample of more than 5,000 students in Years 5-12, in 24 schools across six states. We found that about three-quarters of Year 5 students who participated in the poll are engaged in school. This plummets to 58% in Year 8. By Year 12, only about half of students are engaged.
What may be contributing to this engagement drop is that students who took part in the poll feel their schools are less committed to building their strengths as they progress through school. While nearly two-thirds of Year 5 students "strongly agree" that "their school is committed to building the strengths of each student," only 45% of Year 8 students and one-third of Year 12 students say the same.
These findings are the complete opposite of what we would want for the future leaders of this country. Students should become more engaged in their education and better equipped to use their strengths as they progress through school, not less. Sadly, the results suggest that we are failing to build on what students naturally do well, and are therefore not setting them up for success.
Education leaders have already laid the foundation for focusing on students' strengths. The Australian curriculum has a component that encourages school leaders to foster the development of "personal and social capability" within students. This takes students beyond academic success and pushes them to better understand themselves and others, make responsible decisions, work better in teams, handle challenging situations constructively, and develop their leadership skills.
But we clearly need to do more. If we insist that all students approach situations in exactly the same way, students will never truly develop their natural abilities and reach their full potential. We need to take a differentiated approach to teaching and learning to help our students develop their strengths.
Graham Anderson, principal at Arden Anglican School, agrees that this approach can net multi-faceted benefits for a student's immediate and not-so-immediate future. "For students to know their own strengths and for staff to be able to engage with them using a common language of strength recognition benefits students. It means that the staff is focusing on and encouraging student engagement and deeper learning, in both the current academic program and later in life."
Geoff Brisby, principal at Heritage Christian School, has witnessed positive outcomes as a result of using a strengths-based approach in his school since 2011. "A strengths-based approach is now woven deeply into our school's culture. We have seen staff and students demonstrate increasing levels of hope, learn to appreciate themselves as individuals, and recognise how each person's strengths contribute to the overall health of the school community." This experience, according to Brisby, has been truly transformational.
Gallup Student Poll results suggest that Anderson and Brisby are on target. If educators modify the way they conceptualise and deliver lessons to take their students' individual strengths into account, they can significantly boost student engagement. In fact, Gallup Student Poll results reveal that the 23-percentage-point dip in student engagement between Year 5 and Year 12 students narrows to nine points among students who feel that their school focuses on building their strengths.
To create a culture of strengths and set future leaders of this country up for success, principals and teachers should:
•Develop a strengths-based philosophy on campus and encourage teachers to spend as much time focusing on and building the strengths of each student as they do on academic outcomes.
- when students experience "flow," the feeling of time disappearing because they are lost in their work
- when students are most energised in their lessons and activities
- where students show glimpses of excellence
- where students learn rapidly and are excited to do more
Albert Einstein once said, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." If we focus on students' weaknesses, they will feel like these poor fish. If we want to want to keep students engaged in school and ensure our country's future, we need to focus on their strengths.
To learn more about the Gallup Student Poll in Australia, visit www.gallupstudentpoll.com.au or call +61 02 9409 9000.