To engage to not to engage, that is the question

A rigorous and engaging classroom….what does that look like?  Recently I tweeted a link to an article by David Price that challenged the current perception of what student engagement looks like.

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The article was a summation and analysis of a 20 year longitudinal study of Australian students.  Using the study, David’s article addressed the following myths.

1. I can see when my students are engaged
2. They must be engaged, look at their test scores
3. They must be engaged – they’re having fun

The article (found here) was an incredibly interesting read but the Twitter conversation after my post was for me the most interesting part.  A good friend of mine, Richard Olsen posted the following responses to David’s piece (first tweet at the bottom).

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Richard’s responses threw my initial reactions to David’s article in a tailspin. Is engagement an important metric?  Is as David states our understanding of engagement misinformed?  I know myself that I have relied on my own judgement to gauge the engagement level of students and used this level as an important barometer of the student buy-in to learning.  However is it more important to deep learning than rich student questions or other such metrics.  Is it the level of compliance that is important?  Is it the level of self direction?  David’s response to Richard’s tweet shone another light on the discussion.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 3.13.12 PMAccording to David’s analysis the correlation between engagement and rigor is extremely high and as such, engagement is and should be an extremely important measure for learning.  Deeply engaged learners learn deeply.  It makes sense.  However, I can think of a multitude of instances within my classroom where I perceived a student to be deeply engaged and the depth of learning was shallow or  in other instances, a student who was clearly unengaged but their learning was deep.  Maybe I misread the situations here.  Maybe my metric of engagement is the area that is off here.  Britt Gow then weighed in on the discussion (read tweets from the bottom up first).

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 3.13.49 PMBritt’s perspective highlighted the “game of school” where compliant students who listen and do the right thing are revered by certain teachers and perceived to be the “good students” who will go far in life.  This sat perfectly with David’s first myth dismissal where students can seem engaged but are “asleep with their eyes open”.  Personally I base the engagement with learning in my classroom with the “fringe” students.  I think that they are a better barometer.  One thing that I think all four of us would agree on is that “active, curious and critical” learners are the true engaged learners.  I think it is more about the where we rate the importance of engagement in relation to other metrics of deep learning that is the area that is not as clear.

As you would have read, I am left as always from rich discussion with more questions than answers.  How important is engagement as a metric for learning?  Without engagement, can there not be deep learning?  How do we effectively measure engagement?  Thanks to David, Richard and Britt for helping to deepen my learning.

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4 thoughts on “To engage to not to engage, that is the question

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    1. Thanks Kevin, context is such an important element and often not made reference too in buzzword pieces. It was so refreshing to be part of discussion that challenged the thinking.

  1. ‘Engagement’ appears to be a rather slippery eel Steve, as the questions you rightly raise suggest. It’s all too easy to become trapped in a semantic morass when we try to articulate what we mean by ‘engagement,’ let alone whether engagement is a metric for learning, or even what the metrics or indicators of engagement are. (Now feeling trapped in a loop!)

    Unfortunately the paper David refers to which prompted his article is trapped behind a paywall, but from the abstract, it seems they are referring to a more general sense of engagement in school as a whole; macro-engagement if you will, rather than the micro-engagement we associate with involvement in a lesson. Maybe one leads to the other; maybe not. Perhaps talking about engagement is a fruitless endeavour and we’d be better engaged (!) rallying around less controversial terminology?

    A rather lengthy discussion on the topic arose from this post – https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/weasel-words-1-engage/

    1. Thanks Ian for your comment. It was disappointing to not be able to view the source of David’s post and it is as you say looking at engagement in the broader sense. Maybe the word interest could be used to replace engagement in this sense. Student interest in school seems to fit more with David’s post. The article you posted was great, especially the comment debate…intense! Engage is such a broad term with a myriad of definitions and it can often be confusing because of misinterpretation.

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