Dropping Dots

The Wellington Engagement Index is not an answer-finder. It's a question-finder.

By Gwyneth Connell, Director of the Grauer Institute at Pomfret School

 

How do you know if kids love your class … or hate it? How do you know if they’re being challenged ... or simply entertained? For decades, all teachers had to go on were student feedback forms handed out at the end of the year.

Enter the Wellington Engagement Index (WEI). Pioneered by the Wellington School in Ohio, the online assessment asks students only two questions: “How much do you enjoy this class?” and “How hard is it for you?” Students answer with the click of a button, and their responses are plotted on an X-Y axis that falls into one of four quadrants: grind, engaged, bored, or entertained. Over time, teachers have the opportunity to collect data points, and adjust their teaching practices accordingly. 

As Pomfret enters its second year using the Wellington Engagement Index, we continue to repeat the refrain: “It’s not an answer-finder; it’s a question-finder.” When we see something in the dots that doesn’t seem to make sense, it gives us a direction to dig.

 


"How is it possible that students are just as engaged now as they were this time last year?"


 

Why were freshman boys so much more engaged in their science class last January than the girls were? And what made that gender split resolve itself within a month? What is it about level three of Spanish and French that makes it feel so much more challenging to students — not only more challenging than level two, but also more challenging than level four and five?

As we have gathered more and more data, we have already begun to uncover some important questions, and from these questions, micro-experiments — little tweaks to the student experience that teachers hypothesize might affect student engagement — have emerged. As the years tick by and we continue to collect longitudinal data, the WEI will continue to provide regular feedback that will help us begin to understand the impact of these micro-experiments on student learning and growth.

Though the pandemic has introduced some asterisks to the longitudinal data, it has provided its own questions and opportunities for micro-experiments. Our big question this fall is, How is it possible that students are just as engaged now as they were this time last year?

A scatter plot of student engagement comparing last fall to this fall.

Our partners at the Wellington Initiative are as excited about our experimentation as we are, and they are eager to help us crunch the numbers and suss out whether there’s a signal amidst the noise. For instance, we invested a lot of energy this fall in setting aside standalone distance sections for many classes, especially for our younger students, because we believed teachers would be better able to engage students when all of those students were in-person OR when all of them were at a distance — we thought the complexity of facilitating hybrid classes would necessarily make them somewhat less engaging.

Now that we’ve collected two sets of dots for the fall, we can tag our classes as “hybrid,” “distance,” or “in-person,” and send the list off to the Wellington Initiative. Not only will they help us make sense of our own data, but our information will become part of a larger study of engagement in schools during the pandemic.

Most of all, by continuing to collect this feedback from our students, to respond to it, and to talk to them about it, we send the message that they are in the driver’s seat of their Pomfret experience. Just as their teachers make intentional choices to maximize engagement, students can also make choices to engage themselves meaningfully in school. That deepening love of the challenges of learning is perhaps the most important outcome a Pomfret education can provide.

 

A veteran of independent school education, Gwyneth Connell has served as a leader and teacher at Blair Academy, Berkshire School, and Millbrook School. She holds a master's degree in private school leadership from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in American studies from Amherst College. At Pomfret, Gwyneth is the Director of the Grauer Family Institute for Excellence and Innovation in Education, a thought leader in secondary education.


 

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