Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 1

Engaging Students Around the Globe

Small pockets of inspired practice in Europe, Africa, Australia, and the United States provide effective models for engaging young people in school.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

School disengagement is endemic. It's found in virtually every country in the world, wherever the proverbial square pegs just can't—or won't—be pushed into the equally proverbial round holes.
The picture of disengagement around the globe is varied and sometimes confounds assumptions. In Hong Kong, whose top schools are now experiencing the previously rare phenomenon of students dropping out, the problem often stems from the unremitting pressure on students to outperform their peers (Lau, Tsang, & Kwok, 2007). Pakistan, which has a literacy rate below 50 percent, is, according to its education minister, "a nation of dropouts" ("Pakistan," 2006).
In the new South Africa, old social conditions still prevail. The massive disparities between rich and poor, the violent crime threatening students on their way to and from school, and the ravages that AIDS has visited on two generations have combined to engender a negativity among many young people that keeps them out of school, at home, or on the streets.
Although substantial cultural, social, political, and economic differences exist among countries, young peoples' attitudes toward school—their expressed desires, grievances, and reasons for staying away—are often eerily resonant of one another. What young people say they want—and what so many aren't getting—are what I call the alternative three Rs of school success: relevance, respect, and reward. Resourcing is the silent fourth R, which helps deliver the previous three. It's possible to ensure that the three Rs are present even when funding is scarce, however, as several of the following examples from across the world show.


Finland is an example of a country getting it right, albeit a rich country getting it right. But it's also an example of how resources other than money are required to deliver an education system that is inclusive, creative, and supportive.
A mere 30 years ago, compulsory education in Finland ended after elementary school (Coughlin, 2004). Little more than a picturesque backwater then, the country was eclipsed, if not paralyzed, by Russia, its great bear of a neighbor to the east. Today, Finland has the distinction not only of being the birthplace of the cell phone industry but also of ranking at the top of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which provides comparative test results of 15-year-olds in the Western industrialized nations of the world.
Finland offers free education from nursery school through university and boasts some of the best-educated teachers in the world. With such a profile, it isn't surprising that its school dropout rate is negligible. Although the considerable economic wealth of the country is certainly a major factor in its successful education system, it's the focus on human capital that makes Finland a beacon of good practice.
Teachers are well paid and carry a social status that is the envy of their counterparts across the world. Educated at least to the level of a master's degree (Curtis, 2004), teachers are committed, as a matter of pride, to drawing on their creative and intellectual energies in their work. They treat students as individuals, addressing students' strengths and weaknesses with equal weight. Most interesting, there is no high-stakes testing.

The United Kingdom

Set this picture against that of the United Kingdom. You could be forgiven for assuming that the education system of this country, which has one of the strongest economies in Europe, is a success story. It isn't. A 2007 UNICEF report titled Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries identified British children as being, after U.S. children, the most unhappy among their peers in the developed world. (For a summary, see the Special Report "The Whole Child: An International Perspective," Educational Leadership, May 2007.) Nearly one-third of young people in the United Kingdom drop out or fail their studies (Dearden, Emmerson, Frayne, & Meghir, 2005). In both the United States and the United Kingdom, the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor and the attendant social factors that accompany that chasm—low expectations on the part of educators, lack of motivation on the part of pupils, disparities in school standards and resources, and the belief in testing as a means of bridging those disparities—are glaring.


The good news is that some programs are proving to be particularly successful at keeping students engaged and in school. Take the groundbreaking Cycle d'Insertion Professionnelle Par Alternance (CIPPA) project in Rheims, in northeastern France. Established in 1984 to equip school dropouts with marketable skills, this "sandwich course" combines vocational education with booster classes in academic subjects to enable students to pass the Baccalaureate, the French exams that precede entrance into higher education. In a radical departure from most other programs of its kind, the system meets students' individual needs rather than expecting students to adapt to structures and content that are set in stone. For example, teaching is crosscurricular and heavily based on aural and visual stimuli, accommodating those with different learning styles and those whose native language isn't French. Students take filmmaking and radio production, reporting in those media on topics covered in the classroom. The program brings philosophy, journalism, and literature to life by linking students with professionals in those fields who come to the school for interviews or to give talks. Teachers and older peers provide instruction.
It's a true success story: 99 percent of graduates go into the workforce or continue their academic education (Sopova, 1998). CIPPA is looking forward to sharing its approach and methodology with schools in other countries.

South Africa

The problems of disengaged youth in France seem a world away from the illness and death daily affecting their peers in South Africa, where the HIV/AIDS pandemic has engendered a dangerous nihilism among the young. As a result of seeing so much death and illness around them, many young people aren't concerned about school, breaking the law, or getting involved in self-destructive activities. As one 20-year-old "over-age" student put it, "What's the use of being good and getting an education when everybody's dying young?"
The peer education program Better Life Options is answering that question. Sponsored by YCare International, the international relief and development agency of the YMCA in the United Kingdom, the program focuses on developing self-esteem, self-understanding, and goal-setting skills among young people ages 14–19, in Umlaziin, one of the most impoverished and violent townships in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. With minimal resources at its disposal beyond participants' sheer determination and commitment, the program serves as an example for educators around the world who battle young people's disaffection with school and life in general.
Student volunteers are rigorously trained to run school-based sessions with their peers that go far beyond the standard safe sex and abstinence messages that have had so little effect in Africa and elsewhere. At the outset, students participate in guided introspection exercises, in which they try to understand why they engage in high-risk activities, such as gang membership, carjackings, and prostitution. Group discussions, led by peers who understand these experiences, have a therapeutic effect because they enable participants to express bottled-up grief, anger, and fear in ways that are otherwise culturally frowned on.
One 18-year-old boy in the group reflected on why he was so angry and cruel toward his mother who had AIDS and who depended on him to do the household chores. He came to understand that he was afraid of her dying. This new awareness brought about a shift in his attitude; he became more compassionate.
As participants hear other group members echo their own feelings, they begin to reflect on how they might redirect their behaviors and attitudes. They begin to think about the future in ways they haven't dared to before. Many participants undertake training to become peer educators and come to see themselves as leaders in their own right. The program has already reached out to thousands of young people in the province.
Better Life Options is not rocket science, but it is a clever synthesis of different tried and tested approaches—such as peer mentoring, social and emotional development, and experiential learning—that bring relevance and immediacy to young people in dire need of help. It is surprising that other societies experiencing widespread student disengagement—especially those in which funding may be far more available—are not following this simple formula.
The success of this program illuminates the fact that a fundamental starting point for addressing young people's disaffection with school is helping them gain self-awareness of where they are and of what they need to do to get where they want to be. For many years, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth program has used a version of this approach in the United States and Latin America to great effect.


The arts are another powerful vehicle for engaging young people at risk of leaving school. Integrating the arts into the curriculum gives students a framework from which to look at the world.
A drama project in Melbourne, Australia, involving students at risk of dropping out illustrates how young people can develop empathy and a sense of connectedness with others and how this can lead to reengagement with school. Students ages 14–16 from three schools in a low-income suburban area worked with professional dramatists to create and perform a play. The artists chose a story and structure that the students were free to adapt to reflect their experiences; the play was about the unpredictable outcomes that can result from making what appears to be the right choice.
The artists helped integrate theatrical approaches into the process, using the empty chair technique (in which actors speak to an imagined person sitting in an empty chair) and forum theater (in which actors and audience tackle thorny social issues) to explore characters' motivations and relationships. Students developed empathy for one another and experienced a sense of connectedness as they collaborated, many of them for the first time, with their peers.
Although fun, it was hardly a picnic. The artists had to factor in and accommodate low levels of literacy among the students. Anger and anxiety flare-ups—the result of working closely together and of having to negotiate and compromise—were recurring issues that the artists had to deal with in a way that enabled them to maintain their roles as artists rather than as disciplining teachers.
After months of work, the performance before an invited audience of family and friends left the young actors exhilarated. However, the greatest gains occurred as a result of the process rather than the product. The liaison teacher, who served as a link between the drama project and the school, became a positive presence in the students' lives. The empathy and connectedness the students felt for one another—and the confidence that accompanied those feelings—helped the students feel better about themselves and the school. They didn't suddenly become angels, but they reconnected with school on several important levels. Their attendance, relationships with teachers, and levels of social competence all improved as a result.

South Carolina

The United States can take credit for being the birthplace of one of the most powerful dropout prevention tools anywhere. Service learning is a well-evaluated methodology that can draw the most disengaged young people back from the brink into meaningful school experiences. Although this approach is only slowly catching on outside the United States, a few good models exist in Europe and beyond.
One of the best examples I've seen comes from South Carolina, a state that is in the vanguard of service learning. In one school, vocational education students whose grip on education was tenuous at best went out into their rural community and spoke with residents about the community's needs. Residents said they were concerned about the lack of a fire station. Under the supervision of the service learning coordinator, the students drew up plans in collaboration with professional architects and raised funds to build the station. In math, students took measurements of a plot of land that the school acquired for the project. In science, they took soil samples to discover what kind of foundation would be required. In English, they learned how to write funding request letters. In vocational education, they learned the technical ins and outs of building a fire station, which involved acquiring skills in such areas as bricklaying and electrical system design.
Besides a brand-new fire station complete with a glimmering fire engine, the end result was a group of students who saw, in the course of 18 months, the practical application of their learning in ways that are often denied students in conventional education. As well as staying in school to graduate, most of the students went on to become volunteer firefighters. The project represented a synthesis of the alternative three Rs of school success: relevance to the community; respect for students' abilities to create something worthwhile; and reward, a feeling of pride in what students accomplished.

Safeguarding an Opportunity

There are 120 million children worldwide who don't attend school (Bella & Mputu, 2004). Many would like an education, but external factors—such as poverty, civil unrest, and war—often consign them to illiteracy and the consequent lack of prospects.
For students who have the opportunity to go to school, one of the biggest challenges facing educators the world over is keeping those students engaged in school. Although money helps, effective dropout prevention requires creative energy, determination, and a pinch of risk taking. The right attitude and the right programs can turn lives around for the benefit of the young people themselves, their schools, and their communities.

Bella, N., & Mputu, H. (2004). Dropout in primary and secondary school: A global issue and an obstacle to the achievement of the Education for All goals. International Journal on School Disaffection, 2(1), 6–20.

Coughlin, S. (2004, November 23). Education key to economic survival. BBC News. Available:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4031805.stm

Curtis, P. (2004, December 7). The schools that Finnish top. Guardian Unlimited. Available:http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,5500,1368427,00.html?=rss

Dearden, L., Emmerson, C., Frayne, C., & Meghir, C. (2005, June). Education subsidies and school drop-out rates (IFS Working Papers No. W05/11). London: The Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available:www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp0511.pdf

Lau, Y. K., Tsang, B. Y. P., & Kwok, D. K. (2007). Cultural issues of school dropouts in Hong King. International Journal on School Disaffection, 5(1), 7–10.

Pakistan is a nation of dropouts. (2006, May 31). Financial Express. Available:www.financialexpress.com/old/latest_full_story.php?content_id=129016

Sopova, J. (1998, July–August). Second chance for success: Educating school dropouts. UNESCO Courier. Available:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1310/is_1998_July-August/ai_54115966

UNICEF. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries (Innocenti Report Card 7). Available:www.unicef.org/media/files/ChildPovertyReport.pdf

End Notes

1 Readers can find a more complete description of the projects mentioned in this article in the International Journal on School Disaffection, which discusses approaches and strategies that have proven successful around the world for keeping students from dropping out of school. The journal is published twice yearly by the National Dropout Prevention Center of Clemson University, the National Dropout Prevention Network, and Trentham Books of Stoke-on-Trent, England.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 109020.jpg
The Positive Classroom
Go To Publication