We must close the achievement gap” is a familiar phrase among today’s educators and politicians, reflecting the international focus on how students, schools, and nations perform on standardised tests.
To narrow the achievement gap we must first understand the achievement gap is a symptom of a much greater challenge – the participation gap. Students can only reach their fullest academic, personal and social potential if they participate in their education.
Defined as the difference between students who are meaningfully connected to their learning and those who are not, the participation gap must be narrowed in order for student achievement to rise.
It is not enough to strengthen curriculum offerings and test preparation strategies; if students are to enjoy higher academic success, they must be able to share their voices and express what matters to them.
They must believe in themselves, be excited about their learning, and see the link between what they learn today and who they want to become tomorrow.
When these pieces are in place, students are more likely to participate in the learning process; and when they participate, they are more likely to achieve.
Increasing student participation depends on four key components of student experience: student voice, self-worth, active engagement, and purpose.
How to lessen the participation gap
1. Recognise the importance of student voice
Students should not only be expected to share their voice and be heard, but also to take responsibility for putting their voice into action to help others. Student voice is far more than an opinion survey given once a year. Empowering students to take their voice and turn it into a call to action is what genuine student voice is all about. When students believe they have a voice in school they are eight times more likely to be academically motivated.
2. Help students develop a sense of self-worth
For students to increase their participation in the learning process, they must feel they are part of the school community while being recognised, appreciated, and celebrated for their uniqueness as individuals. Students experience self-worth when someone in their life believes in them. To develop self-worth, students must be recognised as much for effort, perseverance and citizenship as they are for high grades and good test scores.
When students have a sense of self-worth in school they are five times more likely to be academically motivated to learn.
3. Foster students’ active engagement in learning
The participation gap will also lessen when students become so involved in their own learning they lose track of time and space. At the end of a lesson they wonder, “Where did that time go?” Students who are actively engaged in their learning are also curious and creative.
They are not afraid to ask “why?” or “why not?” about the world around them. When students connect learning with their everyday lives they are 16 times more likely to be academically motivated.
4. Encourage a sense of purpose
Far too many students see no connection between school and who they are or who they want to become. Schools must challenge students to think about the characteristics accompanying successful and rewarding work.
They must challenge students to think about who they want to become as well as what they want to be. A sense of purpose involves developing a sense of responsibility, accountability, and confidence.
Students must have leadership roles in schools that carry with them a real sense of responsibility for themselves and others. When students find purpose in their own lives they are 18 times more likely to be academically motivated to learn.
When students have a voice, self-worth, active engagement, and purpose they are more likely to show marked improvements in academic achievement, social awareness and making positive contributions to their school community. Only when all students are deeply connected to their learning will the larger goal of eliminating the achievement gap finally be met.
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