Saturday, January 9, 2010


engaged - participating, being involved in; causing someone else to participate or be involved in

If yours is a 'good' class, the students are engaged. It is not difficult to spot a shining star classroom of engaged students: everyone is on task; no one is fooling around; no one is staring off into space; if someone is speaking, all eyes are on the speaker; if the activity is hands-on, all hands are on the right materials; students are smiling or showing the "I get it" face. 

Beyond that, however,  it is a bit more difficult. In a class of engaged students, for example, a teacher may be speaking or lecturing.  In class of engaged students, content can created by students and led by students, or created by the teacher and led by students, or created by the teacher and guided by the teacher.  In a class of engaged students, there can be loud energy, or there can be the quiet energy of student absorption in reading or writing or doing.

Students can be engaged in or engaged by. I agree that engaged students are more likely to be learning and that a classroom that promotes engagement is more likely to make learning happen. 

Many times, students are disengaged - or they appearing to be.  They may well be temporarily distracted by something else or totally not interested in the lesson content [what 12 year-old really cares about commas?] and unwilling to buy into its importance. What if a student's mother has called her from Tennessee at 7 am, from a hospital bed? What if true crush has bloomed over the weekend and both crushees are in the class? What if the student must doodle or sit on his feet in order to listen? What if she has unmedicated ADD or a form of autism?

All of these happen daily in each of my classrooms, all are beyond my control, and not a single one of them is affected by the best-planned hands-on, dynamic lesson plan.  I can be my most engaging and still fail to engage two or more students in the class. 

How do schools measure student engagement anyway?
  A. Ask a random student after class if the class was exciting or interesting
  B. Ask a random student during class what is going on in the class
  C. Give random content quizzes
  D. Visit a class for a random 8 minutes on a random day and count engaged students
  E. Put laugh-o-meters in the classrooms
  F. Put administrators in the classroom and count disengaged students
  G. Read student reflection journals
  H. Ask the teacher if the class was exciting or interesting and why
  I.  Ask the teacher's colleague
  J.  All of the above
  K. H only

Why do schools measure student engagement anyway?
  A. It is a measure of student learning
  B. It is a measure of how much hands-on and project-based learning is happening
  C. It is measure of teacher effectiveness
  D. It is a measure of the teacher's ability to be an actor or storyteller
  E. It is highlighted in the current leadership literature and on the "circuit"
  F. It is not a reliable measurement of learning or teaching

True engagement can not be seen or measured because it is happening in the grey cells of the individual student.  Kids can fake anything.  I have students who fake being engaged when another adult enters the room, and guess what? They are faking something they really are doing.  While they doodle or look off-brain in the room,  they are taking in everything, they are participating in their head.  But they know that wide-eyes, open mouths, and bushy tails are what adults are looking for, so that is the student they become when they want to appear engaged. 

I have closely monitored group work in my classroom (which is required and even "graded") for the last unit.  Average grade: 9/10. Today I tested the "learning content."  Hmm.  Too many of the actively engaged students, those who participated and urged others to do the same, did not do as well as I expected on the test. Other variables aside (the difficulty of the poems on the test, absenses, individual learning issues), it is clear that what I thought was being learned was not being learned by some students. These students were faking engagement; they faked me; and worst of all, they faked themselves. They were actually surprised by their performance on the test. 

This is what I think happened:

1. Some students who really did not "get" the content were grouped with others who really did get it (grouping was casual and by choice). They put on the the engaged student face, spoke up actively, and still did not get it.  Because they were acting engaged, they asked a few questions, smiled the "I get it" smile, and enjoyed the social context of the class.  They rated the class well.
2. Some students who really did not "get" the content were in a group with others who partially got it but had questions. And they didn't care about the questions or the answers. So when I joined the group of clearly struggling students, they did not engage in the mini lessons, although they knew enough to write down some notes, nod, and smile the "I get it" smile.  They were faking themselves into being engaged.

What do I make of this?

First, I need to do "silent on-paper check-ins" more frequently. Leaving assessment of learning up to the students themselves at this age, in this place, is not good for most.  [I have planned a grammar unit using online digital quizzing as assessment, which I think will be engaging].  HW is clearly not a good index for measuring learning in LA [I knew that].  Paper or oral assessments get to the grey-cell space, whereas performance assessments often do not.

Second, kids are kids, and, no matter what current pedagogy wants us to believe, they are capable of more and better than they generally output.  Who should tell them this?  The teacher. Their peers are not going to.

Third, just plain shy or verbally reluctant kids are REAL, not creations of picture books and graphic novels.  These kids will duck "observable" engagement until and unless their emotional needs are met and their confidence is built.  It is a trick to get them to engage themselves in learning content, something that oral and social learners do without thinking about it.  Guess what? This must be a teacher-centered process.

Engagement is not a natural consequence of magical teaching, or great teaching, or student intelligence.  It is a consequence of student personality, of learning how to learn, of practicing how to learn, and of being rewarded for being an engaged learner.

Let's separate engagement from evaluation and from the student-centered/teacher-centered debate. Let's put engagement where it belongs - in the hands of the student.  It should be part of the student's job and responsibility. It should be viewed as a skill and as a goal.  It is the mission of every school to develop life-long learners. This means graduating learners who are able to activate those grey-cells without a teacher, a classroom, or a network. 

So, how do students learn to be engaged?
  A. By being rewarded for engagement in the classroom, but not for appearing to be engaged
  B. By teacher modeling of engagement with the lesson
  C. By a challenging curriculum that does more than entertain [thinking is good, hard is good]
  D. By direct student-teacher discussions about engagement in the classroom
  E. By reflecting every day on a specific moment of engagement - every student has at least one every class, every day [metacognition is good, journaling is good]
  e. Your ideas?

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