I’ve been pushing a lot of people’s button lately because they keep throwing around this buzz word “engagement”. For example, we need to increase student engagement! We need to promote student engagement! We need to provide teaching that will develop student engagement!
The problem I have with this is that it seems to me that many people confused the word “engagement” for “entertainment”. If kids are having fun then they must be engaged right? And what concerns me more is the people who have taken the message about “increasing engagement” and translated that into a hidden mandate to “increase test scores”.
Well, when you ask people to define engagement you get responses like these (taken from my own staff discussion experience):
- quiet and working
- noisy but working
- discussion of the topic
- take their learning into the hallway
- ask good questions
- focused discussion
- full class participation
And I’ve seen mottos that say, “We will seek to engage 100% of students, 100% of the time.” Doesn’t that sound daunting? It is…..
The problem is that many people have conflicting definitions of the word “engagement”. There is a wonderful document created be a set of three people that I admire very much. “What Did You Do in School Today: Transforming Classes Through Social, Academic, and Intellectual Engagement” created in May 2009 by J. Douglas Williams, Sharon Friesen, and Penny Milton focuses on three areas of engagement and what they mean to the students we teach.
To begin with, there are three ways that students engage within school.
Social Engagement: These are the kids that come to school for the social aspect. They hang out with their friends, they are part of the drama club, they play a few school sports, they sign up for every option class. Their interest in academic subjects is not a guarantee. It is possible they are also academic but on the whole, they are in school because it’s where their friends are.
These are the kids that I worry about the most when we start cutting back on “special” days within our schools (the full day drama camp day, the anti-bullying presentation, the anything non-academic related). Many times this is a high school issue where they say they are losing too much class time to non-academic pursuits and how can they now possibly get through their curriculum? They have finals to get the kids ready for! There are diploma exams! And we’re going to sacrifice yet another set of classes for a school wide pep rally? I think not!
But this is where the kids who are socially engaged in school really begin to check out. If school isn’t “fun” they’re outta there. As class loads increase and academics become the main (if not only) goal, these kids begin to give up. In short….many of them will drop out. What do we do to make sure we are providing an avenue for these kids to stay in school? If getting a high school diploma isn’t their primary goal, how do we convince them we are worth their time?
Academic Engagement: These are the kids who know what’s at stake. They need the good grades, they want the good grades, and they have figured out what they need to do to get the good grades. In other words, they have figured out how to play the game. They also tend to be very independent. They don’t like group projects because their mark could be impacted by someone else and that’s just not acceptable. They spend hours on homework, come to your optional after school tutorials, and study like crazy for exams because they crave the bliss that getting a good grade brings them. Are they actually interested in anything you’re teaching? Maybe. Maybe not. You’ll never know because they put on a pretty good poker face.
These are the kids most often targeted in school. When we say school is a place for “academics”, these are the kids that we’re talking about. The problem is in some schools (although I don’t have stats on this I think it’s likely a strong rural issue) they make up a very small percentage of the class population. I myself graduated in a class of 34. Only 5 of us went on to post secondary and only 3 of us would successfully obtain a University level undergraduate degree. Is it fair to make school decisions based on the minority of the population? What does that mean for the kids that will not be going past the high school diploma? Are they no longer as valuable? Are we making decisions about the way we teach and operate our schools based on the minority of kids it will impact?
Intellectual Engagement: Ah, the kids who learn for the sake of learning…..the kids who go home and build model rockets just to see how high they can make them go, or research disgusting diseases because they have a fascination for how the body works, or (if you’re my Grade 8s) those kids who go home and look up Spanish Inquisition torture techniques because your Renaissance history teacher mentioned it in passing and it just sounded too cool to resist.
Ultimately you see these kids entering science fairs, historica fairs, and anything else that peaks their curiosity. The grade matters less to them then the academic student because the true joy was in learning about the topic. These kids will become our doctors, lawyers, authors, etc because they have found a passion that needed developing.
And as teachers, THIS is what we truly want. When you have achieved this in your classroom you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. When they run up to you and tell you about what they found out last night on the internet, or they correct something you said in class the previous day, or they have a video on the topic they think would be good to show the class….you want to jump and scream Hallelujah! And it’s the more sweeter when it isn’t the “academic” kid because this really means that you got them.
Unfortunately, too often the description of what engagement looks like tends towards the list that I spoke about at the beginning of the post. And if you look closely at it, it’s related to “on task” behaviour. We tend to think that if kids are “on task” they are engaged. And for the most part they are…..but what kind of engagement have you achieved?
Social Engagement? It was an excuse for them to hang out with their peer group and talk about something that held their interest for the ten minutes you needed it for? Did they find it “entertaining” enough to engage in it?
Intellectual Engagement? Which is what you are hoping for…..or is it more likely Academic Engagement? The teacher pleasing, I need to get this assignment done to get the good grade, if I look like I’m working she won’t get me into any trouble…..engagement?
I attended a PD session with Sharon Friesen where she flat out admitted that it’s very hard to achieve Intellectual Engagement with kids. Mostly because it all comes down to two major factors: The challenge of the work and the perceived confidence in skill level.
It comes down to this:
- Low skills, low challenge = apathetic learners
- High skills, low challenge = bored learners
- Low skill, high challenge = apprehensive learners
- High skills, high challenge = interested and successful learners
Friesen describes the ideal situation of high skill and high challenge as a feeling of “flow” – that is kids are working on something they feel so engaged in that they don’t notice the passage of time. The bell has no significance to them. They may even fail to notice when the bell goes! Or they will groan and ask if they really have to stop. Or they will ask to stay in at recess and just keep working.
These students also report a high percentage of participation, a feeling of belonging, consistent attendance, and feelings of intellectual engagement.
The trick to all this, as I see it, comes down to the skill level. So our challenge as teachers becomes, what do we do to make sure that the students have skills that will be required to be successful? If they are lacking in these skills, what do we do about that?
The answer I’ve come up with is difficult to manage because it ultimately involves a strong notion of differentiated learning. Matching the challenge of an assignment with the skill set of the student. At the end of the day it will come down to how successful your student feels in class. The more success they experience, they more they will crave.
But the next time you start talking about “needing more engagement” from your students or making “student engagement” part of your team goals, I encourage you to have the difficult conversation about what kind of engagement you are really talking about. Uncover the hidden goals.
I found it so encouraging to be having frank staff room discussions around student engagement only to find that the sad truth is (after listening to many conversation around student achievement) I find what most people are talking about is how to increase academic engagement in order to better test scores on standardized exams. And this makes me shake my head. Shouldn’t our real goal be to increase intellectual engagement so that we are developing kids with a love or learning? And if we are really targeting academic engagement, what about our socially engaged learners who are on the bubble and considering dropping out of school?
We talk often about teaching “the whole child” and then we turn around and say, “But school is a place of learning. Academics are the focus!”
Is academic learning the only learning that takes place in school? People get mad at me when I ask that question. They say I’m detracting from the real issue. I say it’s an issue of perception. If everyone is looking at a box sitting on the table they can tell you exactly what they see and they can guess at what everyone else is seeing. The problem is that no one sees the bottom of the box unless someone stands up and flips it over.
And once you’ve come up with the difficult notion that really it’s the intellectual engagement we need to strive for you can have the super, exciting, everyone wants to have their say conversations around really tough questions such as giving out zeros, the purpose of homework, the role of assessment and grading, and lots of others things that will cause people to get their backs up.
Ask the tough questions that need asking. Push people’s buttons. Flip over the box. Point at the elephant in the room and make everyone stare at it.
Stand at the front of your staff meeting and say, “What do we REALLY mean when we say we want to increase student engagement?”