Tiers of Engagement

Engagement is the most unnecessarily contentious of issues in teaching. Engagement is whatever can be done to ‘hook’ the attention of learners in order that they learn as much as possible, and that they do so actively .

Engagement can be fostered by specific items of knowledge, specific pupil activities, specific discussions and questions or specific modes of delivery on the part of the teacher.

Engagement without knowledge is a huge waste of everybody’s learning time in school, but knowledge without engagement is rare and unproductive.

Engagement works, as an element of learning, at two levels – the lesson level and the legacy level.

A lesson can be engaging at both levels, at either one, or at neither. The effectiveness of engagement rests on another lovely buzzword – differentiation. If you know what your children do and do not know, and if you know how they do and do not learn, as well as knowing the intricate details of individual kids, you are able to maximise the learning in your class through maximising pupil engagement.

Let’s give examples.

I am someone who loves learning and I am generally on the high end of the geek spectrum – it got me from Doncaster to the University of Cambridge for a degree in Politics, Psychology and Sociology. Now, I can pick up a book that would seem dense terse and boring, and I can appreciate its message, argument and contribution if it falls within my educational fields. 

To learn more about the politics and culture of a country, I need only pick up any well-written book. I do not need to be engaged and tantalised in order to retain interest.

If I want to learn about chemical bonds, or legal statutes, or ancient theological debates though, I could be given an encyclopaedia containig all I need to know, but in this situation, the knowledge alone is not enough.

I need it explained to me in ways that I understand, perhaps through reference to the things that I do know, and things I already have an established interest in. Perhaps I need a to see photographs, or see videos and have their significance explained to me. If the book is extremely well written, the style alone might hook me, thus giving me the chance to pick up on the knowledge I don’t yet have. I think here of books like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ or like V.S. Naipaul’s ‘India: A Wounded Civilization’, whose artful penmanship allow me to ‘box above my weight’ in terms of my subject knowledge.

In this example, the point I wish to make is that you sometimes need to engage to get across a specific teaching point, but sometimes you need to engage to build a foundation of interest in a subject or discipline.

I could teach a sequence of individual sciece lessons in a unit that are well considered and engaging enough that pupils attention from the learning does not dissipate. This, though, is ten times more difficult when pupils do not have an already established passion, interest and engagement in Science as a discipline.

As a teacher, perhaps particularly in those formative years in primary, we can engage pupils not only to participate fully and maximise the learning in a given lesson; we can engage them to foster a more general love for given disciplines, bodies of knowledge and their associated skillsets.

In my experience of teaching primary maths in Year 4, the more I can encourage the pupils to generate an interest in maths itself, the easier it is to engage them in specific mathematical learning points.

This means that a maths lesson might not always look like what maths lessons are presumed to look like. The kids fetishise the word ‘algebra’; it is as though it represents a grown-up skill they can show off about. When wanting to teach them about algebra, we went back through the history of mathematics to Al-Khwarizimi and his Hisab al-jabr w’al Muqabala 

<By teaching them about Al-Khwarizimi and his al-jabr, which became westernised as algebra, the kids could start their work on algebraic equations from the linguistic understanding of algebra as 'completion and balance'.

This meant that when we got stuck into the enjoyable meat of solving equations, they had the idea of balace in their head, complemented by the image of pair of scales as a reminder, and the kids were verbalising logic like "I took four from this side to get rid for +4 so now I need to take four from the other side".

The greater the level of engagement we can foster with a whole subject, the easier it becomes to engage pupils in the pursuit of individual learnig objectives in a given lesson, and in this way, the more likely the children are to learn.

This could entail fundamental shifts in the parameters of subjects, for the purpose of drawing links for engagement even if not for cross-curricular approaches to subject content.

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3 thoughts on “Tiers of Engagement

  1. The reason “engagement” is contentious, is that sometimes it is used to mean “paying attention and on task” and sometimes it is used to mean “enjoyment”. Yet these are two very different things. If you don’t believe me, go to a cinema with rowdy teenagers, who are both enjoying the trip to the cinema but not paying much attention to the film. It makes a huge difference which is meant, because while every teacher wants children to be on task and actually learning, it is far from clear how much they should enjoy, or even be interested, in everything.

    In some cases your blogpost appears to suggest one definition, and at other points, the other definition. That’s why the term is contentious and also why I find your blogpost contentious. This is not helped by the risks of teaching that algebra is a method, rather than a set of notation.

    1. Hi Andrew
      I tried to make it clear what I meant by engagement in the first paragraph. I appreciate that there is a confusion between engagement as on-task and as enjoyment, but that’s not my confusion. I do think that enjoyment is a vital branch of the engagement tree though, and that pupils enjoying their learning, as well as being on task, is the optimal condition for learning. Within primary, we have that pastoral responsibility too – it is our role to ensure our children are happy as well as to ensure they are learning.

      I appreciate the confusion but I don’t think I was unclear.

      As for algebra as method versus as a set of notation, the difference is not so great. By ‘method’ in primary maths and science, we are talking about working through how to do something. This is a set of notation in the teaching of algebra, showing the pupils how to record their steps in solving equations. The ‘method’ is the step by step notation.

      Thanks for comments, as always.

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