Tuesday, 5 May 2020

CELPO - What does it mean to be engaged? Ian Stonnell

Engagement means to be involved. Now at Denbigh, as I am sure many schools across the land have found, getting students engaged in learning can be a challenge. We have called thus problem 'passive learning' and have been trying to tackle it, as we teachers inherently know that the more engaged students are the better their outcomes will be. However teachers, experienced and otherwise, have often found this a challenge and this is often rooted in misconceptions about what engagement in the classroom actually is.
Engaged Students Clipart
Although it may look students are engaged, are they actually learning anything?
The illusion of engagement
A student actively involved in a task (see image above) is no guarantee of learning. One of the common errors of an inexperienced teacher is believing that students actively doing something in class makes a lesson successful. After all, students are not being disruptive or passive! This kind of lesson could involve sorting cards, producing posters/leaflets or answering questions from a textbook.
The teacher may feel that as long as something is happening and that they are in control, the lesson could be judged as a success. Unfortunately, although control is positive, it is no guarantee that any learning is taking place.

Rob Coe noticed this in his research where he found several poor proxies for learning, including engagement.
Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 20.14.37
In addition Tom Loveless noticed, when comparing international PISA figures,  that although students in the US were more motivated and engaged in maths compared to those in Singapore, the attainment of students in Singapore was significantly higher. Loveless noted that “the least-confident Singaporean eighth grader still outscores the most-confident American, 551 to 541 [in Maths].” This may reflect cultural differences nevertheless the point is clear - having motivated, busy, and confident learners does not mean they are going to learn as well as they could. A more detailed discussion of this evidence can be found on David Didau's blog here.

The findings of Coe and Loveless caused many a teachers feathers to be ruffled - surely if you have motivated and engaged learners in a well ordered and controlled classroom learning will be brilliant!!!?? Well, no.

Take for example the task of designing a leaflet on a branch of relevant subject knowledge. No doubt you can set this task and a class will be engaged, motivated to complete it, and whilst they are doing it they can be focussed and minimally distracted. Surely, a success? Not really. In reality much of the cognitive load of this task will be spent on what the leaflet looks like, how the paper is folded, the quality of the bubble writing, and the appropriate pictures to draw on it. Very little thought will be placed on the actual knowledge contained within the leaflet, and even if text is included, is any of the knowledge processed and understood, or is it just an inferior copy of something they have found from a textbook? Overall, even if some thinking has occurred, the task of designing a leaflet can be a huge waste of time with very little learning taking place, unless of course you're trying to teach them leaflet design!

In an activity like this engagement in the task is not learning. What we need is students to be engaged in the knowledge we want them to recall - that is true engagement - what I would call engagement in learning.

Ways to fold a leaflet
brochure folding
When making a leaflet a lot of the thinking time is wasted on processes that are not focussed on the knowledge we want them to learn.

What does being engaged in learning look like?
Engagement in learning is good when students are processing the knowledge you want them to learn not the details of a task. This can be seen when students are:
  • Paying attention - students listen to and track the teacher during explanations or modelling of subject knowledge.
  • Asking questions - students have the confidence to ask questions about the knowledge they are being presented.
  • Responding to questions.
  • Students discussing knowledge with their peers.
  • Completing processing tasks with minimal distractions. 
  • Students recalling knowledge and communicating it to others.
Planning for engagement in learning
This is all fair and dandy, but getting a class to this level is not an easy task. Here are a few pointers:
  1. Set the right level of challenge. This will help to ensure students feel like any effort they may spend in a lesson is worthwhile. 
  2. Ensure any planned tasks are linked clearly to the learning objectives and scaffolded appropriately. If a task does not progress the learning, then it is not worth doing and if a task is more complex than the learning point you are trying to make - resist doing it - think of cognitive load theory.
  3. Build knowledge using memory and recall strategies - when students feel they are learning and recalling knowledge their confidence and engagement in learning will grow.
  4. Build positive relationships - perhaps a little too obvious to mention but crucially important - make sure you encourage students, provide them a purpose for learning, and support the development of a growth mindset. 
I could add 'make the knowledge exciting'. However, not all of the knowledge we are tasked to teach students lends itself to being exciting. Obviously, where we can do this we should aim to do so, but it certainly should not be an expected pre-requisite of effective learning.

Do students always need to be engaged to be successful?
Firstly, there is the simple fact that it is just not physically or mentally possible to be engaged 100% of the time in any learning experience, therefore we should not crucify ourselves if students are passive every once in a while. Also, as this blog has argued, students do not have to always be engaged in completing a task to be learning effectively. If a student is sitting in silence and thinking about knowledge (appearing passive) they are still involved in a highly valuable learning process.

Information Processing/Multi Store Model of Memory | Information ...
The key point of any learning experience is for students to process the knowledge you want them to learn, ultimately encoding it into the long term memory.
What really matters is whether the students have a consistent and persistent diet of opportunities to engage in processing knowledge effectively. If this is the case then knowledge is more likely to stick and learning will take place. Evidence of this will be shown by what any student can tell you about what they have learned in a particular subject - not what they have done. If they can do this, then they have obviously been engaged in their learning! Planning a lesson of engaging and fun activities that will keep students busy will not do.

Ian Stonnell @DenbighCPD

Further Reading

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