Who is responsible for engagement in learning?

One of the sure fire ways to get Twitter all of a flutter is to suggest that teachers need not engage children. What tends to happen is that the visceral response kicks into high gear and accusations start flying. In 240 characters it is difficult to get folk to think about what is being said and what is not being said or implied. This blog post is to explore what is meant and what the implications might be of teachers not having the responsibility for learners’ engagement, directly.

I do not mean that teachers should intentionally set up boring and dull lessons to challenge students to become disengaged.

I do not mean that children do not have to be engaged to learn effectively.

I do not mean that we can rely on others to discipline misbehaving children.

I do not think the issue is different for different age children.

It will be useful to try to define what engagement is. Teachers tend to nod and agree with little further discussion to the suggestion of some ideas. Clearly children need to be engaged to learn well and there is no need for further comment. I think there is such a need.

What is engagement? Google gives many references but, as always, let’s take a look at what Wikipedia says.

Student engagement occurs when “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.”[1] It is increasingly seen as an indicator of successful classroom instruction, and as a valued outcome of school reform. The phrase was identified in 1996 as “the latest buzzword in education circles.”[2] Students are engaged when they are involved in their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work.[3] Student engagement also refers to a “student’s willingness, need, desire and compulsion to participate in, and be successful in, the learning process promoting higher level thinking for enduring understanding.”[4] Student engagement is also a usefully ambiguous term that can be used to recognize the complexity of ‘engagement’ beyond the fragmented domains of cognition, behaviour, emotion or affect, and in doing so encompass the historically situated individual within their contextual variables (such as personal and familial circumstances) that at every moment influence how engaged an individual (or group) is in their learning.

So engagement is students making an investment in learning. Trying hard. In 1996 it was identified as the latest buzzword. It is a usefully ambiguous term! What is not ambiguous in education?

Now what engagement is not is entertainment. I do think that some teachers see the need for engagement because it avoids misbehaviour. That is, a disengaged student is likely to misbehave. That is true. Misbehaviour does lead to significant teacher stress and poor learning in classrooms. Hattie identifies that the presence of one disruptive student in a class significantly affects the learning of all other students. Perhaps changing what teachers do is dangerous because it might lead to student misbehaviour. If what teachers are doing already why change? Good question. My view is that we have to improve and to improve means change. We know that change itself is stressful. Bit of a cleft stick. Our brain resists change to such an extent that we will, often, avoid even exploring the prospective change. If the change does not appear to be needed then we can see why teachers nod and agree with the statement that teachers need to plan and deliver engaging lessons.

Let’s just stop and reflect a little on the phrase, ‘engaging lessons’ and compare that with the Wikipedia description of engagement. The particular part is this sentence, ‘Student engagement also refers to a “student’s willingness, need, desire and compulsion to participate in, and be successful in, the learning process promoting higher level thinking for enduring understanding.’ What this says is that engagement is a function of the student. Not a function of the lesson.

A lesson will be engaging if a student is engaged. I want to read that sentence carefully. The reason the lesson is judged to be engaging is that the student is engaged. The student tries hard to learn. He/she takes pride etc.

Those sound to me like qualities we would want students to have. Resilience and pride in their own learning. I don’t see how we can create these in a lesson. I don’t see how a lesson can actually engage. I better be clear what I mean by that and what I don’t mean. I do not mean that one can not see students being engaged in a lesson. But what I read into that idea is that to be engaged is a function of student attitude. Attitude is something we would see as a function of school ethos. Something that can be, at least, enhanced by training. Students can be taught to engage. That is the idea I want to consider.

We would hold a student responsible for their attitude to school and to learning. We would want to know that they had been given well prepared, and challenging lessons that most reasonable students would consider a good deal. The responsibility of the teacher is to plan and deliver such lessons. The responsibility of the student is to be engaged.

That lovely man, I assume he is lovely as he smiles in his Twitter profile picture, @davidfawcett27 has suggested a couple of additions. He asks if this links to growth mindset work from Carol Dweck. I think it does and if we can show students that belief in growth by hard work then they will understand better how their choice to engage is so critical to their learning.

He also asks if it can be part of learn to learn programmes. Again I agree. It can.

So that challenge is to get over the brain resistance to change and think about what we would add to a learn to learn programme to support students in their learning abilities so that they can engage and remain engaged when the learning gets tough. And teachers can rely on this newly developed resilience rather than thinking they have to engage and entertain students to persuade them to learn.

Teachers do not have to engage students!

Just had a twitter conversation, I guess it might continue, where I am saying that it is not appropriate to expect teachers to have the responsibility to engage children in their learning. As always with complex arguments it is difficult to express the idea as clearly as i would like in 140 characters. Even creating a series of Tweets using the  1 /2  and then 2/2 convention the Tweets do not emphasise the right words and provide the subtlety needed. So one has to blog.

So I get the itch and here it goes. I want to say read the words I type carefully and try to see what I mean, not what you think I mean. But I will not as that is a bit off, really. What happens, to all of us, is that we hold a belief, such as we must engage students, or they will not learn and if anyone says the opposite we find it hard to ‘hear’ their argument rationally. Our beliefs are challenged and we, naturally, defend them. We expect a much higher degree of proof and higher quality of argument to change a belief we hold than we expect for an argument that confirms our belief. If we believe children need to be engaged *by the teacher* then someone who says that is untrue gets dismissed rather too quickly. This is the other side of confirmation bias, where we continue to believe what we currently believe. It is a function of how our brain works. Our brain does not want us to expend the energy needed to create a new belief so protects us from the effort required. We have to work much harder at listening to a counter argument as to one that contains the *truths* which we currently hold.

Let’s look at my statement about engagement.

‘It is not appropriate for teachers to have the responsibility to engage children in their learning’

If I were speaking to you I would put a strong emphasis on the word ‘responsibility’. I am *not* saying that children do not have to be engaged, focused and working hard, in their learning. They do. What I am saying is that teachers should not be held to account for children who are not engaged.

Consider this sentence, perhaps from a lesson observation:

Sentence 1: The children were not engaged and, consequently, their behaviour was poor.

I want to think about the reverse.

Sentence 2: The children’s behaviour was poor and, consequently, they were not engaged.

Poor engagement is a behaviour issue and it is the children whose behaviour needs to change. If it does their engagement will most likely improve. If we expect the teacher to provide the mechanism for the students to engage then we are asking the teacher to make the work interesting so that it then engages the students. I do not believe that is an appropriate role for the teacher to take. It is like asking the teacher to perform, to entertain the children. To be some sort of joke producer and to be responsible when the audience, the children, do no not become engaged.

I know that some teachers will be uncomfortable with this idea. Sometimes that is because you see sentence 1 as the driver in your classroom. To avoid the misbehaviour you have to engage children. It is as though disengagement and the consequent misbehaviour is the natural order of things. It is not. But if we believe it is then we will miscue on the role of the teacher and the role of the child. Again I would emphasise certain words if I were speaking to you. It would be a good idea to think about which words I might emphasise to you.

The teacher’s role and responsibility is to the content being taught. It is your job to teach the material clearly and cause the child’s attention to be drawn to that which matters in the thing they are trying to learn. You need to plan attention focus. What will they need to attend to closely and what can be less well attended to? What are the really critical bits that they must get if they are to learn effectively.

Please don’t think engagement is the same as the focus of our attention. Teachers provide the focus for attention. Children provide the engagement.

An example may help. What happens if we add something to try to engage a learner? It can very often distract from the actual, intended learning. Here is the example. I was being taught how to deliver a leadership programme. Richard the designer of the programme showed me a slide of a bug ship. He he written the following under the cartoon picture of the ship:


Richard explained that the idea of lead-a-ship came from his some who asked him if leadership was what a captain on a ship did. I found this quite engaging. When I left Richard and tried to put some materials together, powerpoint, to explain what we wanted participants in the programme to do I could not remember the purpose of the picture and the lead-a-ship thing. I certainly could remember the picture and the phrase, lead-a-ship and i also remembered that his son had been influential in the matter. But, the very engaging matters of son and the pun had distracted me from the learning. I did not know what the lead-a-ship thing was for.

That happens when we add a context or something that is in itself engaging to the learning that we want to happen. We remember the thing that was engaging rather than the learning that was intended.

the fuss and our time, as learning designers, becomes on searching for something that can engage the learner. We already know the learning that we want them to do. The engaging thing we find will not distract us, so we don’t see it as a distraction. But the learner does not know which bit to pay attention to. Does he attend to the image of the ship, or the son’s involvement or the pun on leadership?

We need to plan the learning materials so that they point out that which is to be learned as clearly as possible and do not try to make a distracting engagement thing so attention grabbing that it distorts the learner’s attention focus.

Our job is to focus attention not engage learners in distractions.

Hattie, on students asking questions in class

Connected to this point, I’m spending a lot of time researching the issue of student questions. And I can tell you that student questions are glaringly absent from classrooms. On the other hand, we know that teachers ask about 200 questions a day and that students already know the answers to 97 per cent of them. And most of the questions are about surface level knowledge, and require between three and seven words in response. On average, most students ask about one question a day at school.

How much teacher talk is too much?

One of the difficulties of so much teacher talk is that it demonstrates to students that teachers are the owners of subject content, and controllers of the pacing and sequencing of learning. It reduces the opportunities for students to impose their own prior achievement, understanding, sequencing, and questions.

From Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing
Impact on Learning (Hattie, 2012)


MIND FRAME 1: Teachers/leaders believe that their fundamental task is to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning and achievement.

MIND FRAME 2: Teachers/leaders believe that success and failure in student learning are about what they, as teachers or leaders, did or did not do…We are change agents!

MIND FRAME 3: Teachers/leaders want to talk more about the learning than the teaching.

MIND FRAME 4: Teachers/leaders see assessment as feedback about their impact.

MIND FRAME 5: Teachers/leaders engage in dialogue not monologue.

MIND FRAME 6: Teachers/leaders enjoy the challenge and never retreat to “doing their best.”

MIND FRAME 7: Teachers/leaders believe that it is their role to develop positive relationships in classroom/staffrooms.

MIND FRAME 8: Teachers/leaders inform all about the language of learning.

Notes from a podcast by John Hattie. Aug 2013

What Hattie says, in my words…
My thoughts, comments and some questions
  1. Reading a more difficult font slows you down and makes you think more. You learn more deeply. He refers to Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman
How difficult should it be? How do we measure the difficulty? I like it that we can up challenge without making the content itself more difficult.
  1. ow.ly/nZ0PY Hattie likes SOLO. About 20 minutes in. He also likes surface/shallow knowledge.
I like SOLO.
  1. You can’t have deep without shallow knowledge – (he calls it surface).
Yeah. This is so true. In our rush to deep thinking we forget that we needs to know lots of stuff before the deep stuff can make proper sense. Paddle about in the shallows for a long time.
  1. We are quite skilled at resisting doing things differently. We have learned to do what we do and we keep doing it. We resist change to our own practice.
Confirmation bias kicks in here. We like what we know and tend to reject that which conflicts.
  1. Show worked examples right up front.
Agree strongly but how much of the method of the worked example do we need to show. Difference between showing how to solve a maths problem and how to write an essay.
  1. We need to build automatic processes as much as possible so we can reduce cognitive load for learners. He calls this automaticity.
This is how our brains work. Working memory stuff rules our ability to learn.
  1. Don’t make the answer a secret!!!
We can make students think without having to make everything hidden and a puzzle. Make them think when they know what to do.
  1. Worked examples given at the beginning of learning has an effect size of +0.8 compared to same teaching without worked examples. A cheap way of levering a great learning process.
Seems a no brainer if we can sort out the nature of the worked examples and the features we need to demonstrate by using them.
  1. Hattie says it is a sin to go into a classroom and observe a teacher. We only see how the teacher differs from what we would do!
I can only agree. If we observe to help improve a teacher, and the teacher improves, why do we need to make an Ofsted style judgement?
  1. Show kids what success looks like. Give them some predictability. Give them the ability to predict what they need to work on and in what ways to be successful.
This is the hard bit. If we give them the answer will they become dependent on us and not think?
  1. When you watch a teacher teach what you can tell the teacher how to teach better *like* you. This is not good, he says. I agree!!!
Probably this is mostly true. I like to nail my colours to the mast!
  1. When you observe a lesson, observe the children learning. Observe the outcome of the teaching.
This is so true it is a real shame it needs to be said. Watching the teacher is like watching the magician. You will always be distracted and never work out how the trick is done.
  1. Children working in pairs is powerful. Because they have to work out what is going on.
I do like this. Traditionalists don’t seem to like any form of group work. I do. Now I have a better idea of why.
  1. By the age of five kids have worked out the way to solve problems with their learning. Which is to wait for the teacher to come and tell you what to do.
Wow. Never thought of it like that. But it is so, so true.
  1. By the age of eight kids have learned that they are the audience in the classroom!!! Their job is to pretend to listen, as evidenced by Graham Nuttall’s extended study of student talk in class.
Wow again.
  1. We should allow talk to happen so we can listen to the impact we have as teachers. Teachers have to shut up. So we know what to re teach.
Yep. That’s just what I teach my teachers to do. Listen, properly, to the students and hear what they are learning.
  1. If you mix praise with feedback they only hear the praise.
Well done, Mr Hattie. Great advice.
  1. Kids having confidence they can succeed is the most powerful predictor of outcomes.
That is our job. Engagement comes with the success that comes after effort because of the confidence.
  1. Feedback needs to be matched to the process level kids are at. Eg task level give information. SOLO can be helpful here. Helps teachers identify level students are at and the feedback can be matched to that level.
Needs a lot more thought and planning to be able to do this in class. But it might just be the key we have been waiting for to unlock the Dylan Wiliam power of feedback to learners.
  1. ow.ly/nZN11 Please listen to Hattie. It is longish but very very worthwhile.
Click and listen to the original podcast.
  1. Feedback is much more than where to next.
So what more is it?
  1. There is a big difference between feedback given and feedback received. Needs to be personal. Kids receive about 3 seconds per day!!!!!!! Teachers rightly judge themselves as giving lots of feedback. Problem is most of it is either general to the class or not ‘heard’ by the learner.
Oh, I feel gulty again. I did give lots of feedback. But who heard it? Only me?
  1. How can we get students to better interpret feedback and assessment and what it means for their learning.
We have to teach them this as well. So they have to practise receiving and acting on feedback. So we need to allocate time during lessons for this to happen.
  1. Hearing another student talking about the learning a student has just done is powerful for the first student. The discussion is good for learning.
I get why this would be. I can ask questions as a learner of another learner.
  1. Learning strategies work differently when learning is shallow or deep.
Is this a sop to some poor processes or is it a life line to those who still hold onto learning styles et al?

  1. Current learning strategies (brain gym and some other contentious stuff) are often ok for surface learning. But they do not work for deeper learning and thinking.
As above
  1. For learning strategies to work they MUST be done within context and content for deep learning.
Need to think more about what this means in a classroom and in planning.
  1. Practise at doing tests and distributed practise are by far the best two strategies. By far…
Yeah. I got into all sorts of hassle at my school when I was a HoD for giving regular and frequent tests. I knew I was right.
  1. Those two learning strategies work across all contexts and contents!!!
Practice tests and distributed practice. Work for all subjects.
  1. Kids need confidence to be able and willing to engage. Not engagement first!!!
As we said above
  1. Powerful when parents learn the language of learning.
Probably an untapped power in challenging schools.
  1. High trust leads to errors by students being tolerated, by them and by others, and leads to good learning.
Yep. One of the first things I see in poorly performing schools. Kids who laugh at other kids who make mistakes and teachers who do not correct them sharply enough.
  1. Do teachers have a common understanding of progress? For different children?
I doubt we could agree what progress is in terms that are useful for teachers in planning and assessing.
  1. Hattie ends with an advert for his new book, Visible learning and the science of how we learn, coming in October (On Amazon for publication late September). I will be one of the first to buy it – assuming it is as an ebook.
Buy the book. I will. No you cannot borrow my copy – it will be an ebook anyway for me.

My daughter beat me at wrestling – progressive or traditional teaching?

I really should stop spending so much time on twitter. It gives me nightmares. The one last night was a wrestling match against my daughter, who, in the dream, beat me because my hips were hurting. The incongruity of her beating me matches the tension I felt while listening to a podcast by my favourite, challenging educational researcher, John Hattie. He was talking at a conference about some of the issues he would unpick in more detail in his new publication, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, which is due out in September /October 2013.

As always he uses the massive database of, now, over 300 million students, and meta analysis of loads of studies to extract the essence of what works for learning. Along the way he throws in some minor hand grenades – such as he wants children to work in pairs and talk about learning even though they sometimes get it wrong! Even more explosive than that is that he does not want the teacher to intervene at that stage. Not to correct the student(s) who are in error. But to listen so that the teacher can evaluate his teaching and to plan to deliver the next learning on the basis of what students understand or do not understand. How many of us could hold ourselves back if we heard the errors being discussed?

But, although that is enough to disturb me and almost certainly accounts for my daughter being able to beat me in the somnambulistic fighting match that is not what I want to focus on. I should say need to focus on as I get a kind of itchy tension and writing relieves me of the feeling. What I want to explore is the tension between the traditional teaching club and the progressives. As you will know, if you have read some of my other stuff, I think both are correct. That is not just me being sift and wanting to please everybody but there seems sense in what each camp says. Hattie also seems to say this. At least, that is what I hear when I listen to him when he recounts what works.

He is very clear, as the traditionalists are, that knowledge comes first. Enough knowledge, delivered clearly while the teacher checks for understanding and makes the learning visible to the student and to the teacher. Worked examples exemplify what success looks like to the student. Give them the answer so they can focus on the process. After this it is practice. Practice to make the process become automatic as much as possible. The automaticity, a word I have just learned so I will use so it becomes an automatic part of my vocabulary. Learn it and then practice it. Because I am a reasonably good learner I can self monitor  check I have spelled it correctly and am using it in an appropriate manner. For example I can break the word into two parts – ‘automatic’ which I know and the ending ‘ity’ which I know from my knowledge of other words.

The last part of that paragraph is not just me being self indulgent. I think that the self correcting processes are key to the clash between traditional and progressive. When we think about the teacher delivering knowledge the image is of passive children who just have to put up with the teacher ‘droning’ on. The progressives see this as negative and potentially damaging. The traditionalists see this as vital for learning. Both are right, or have some degree of rightness. We do have to deliver what Hattie calls surface knowledge to students. They have to have a lot of it before they are able to begin to understand what they are learning and approach any degree of mastery. But we must ensure that the students are confident in their ability to continue working at the difficult stuff and that needs an input from the teacher. The progressives call this engagement but Hattie does not seem to like that, preferring to see student confidence as coming first.

The traditionalist see the knowledge delivery as potentially corrupted by the progressives attempts to engage students. The additional material that engages puts an additional cognitive load on students and they are not able to cope with the new knowledge.

I think the issue might be a little more than that. The issue for the progressives is the potentially passive nature of students whom they envisage sitting in rows, silently listening to material being presented which they do not understand and cannot yet relate to. They see this phase as unthinking. And it could be. But let me hypothesis to the progressives that if we could be sure that students were, indeed, thinking during the knowledge input stage that their fears would melt away. Students will be taking an active, thinking, part in the learning process at this time. What students have to have is access to ways of processing as I gave above in my early learning of the word automaticity. if you remember I know the word as two parts ‘automatic’ and ‘ity’. 

To make sure students do think while they are being given the surface knowledge we need to have taught them ways to think about what they are learning. They need to be actively processing, trying to make sense of and trying to work out how to remember what we are teaching them. 

The really critical bit, the part I had to think about hard while I was listening to the Hattie podcast was how we could get children to be active learners while they were engaged in the early knowledge input phase of learning. When he said that word, ‘automatic’ ‘ity’ – automaticity, the penny dropped. It is that we have to have children in our classes who are not, as Hattie puts it, simply the audience but are taking an active part in the learning. Progressives – is that what you need to be a little more secure with the traditionalists’ approach to learning? Traditionalists, do you see what the progressives want is the same as you want, essentially?

I’d love to hear from both camps so I can be made to think more deeply about this issue.

My daughter only manages to beat me up in dreams. I real life, it is a different outcome.

Direct Instruction – Errors?

Just read the blog of @headguruteacher, who write about his response to the Seven Myths of Education book by @daisychristo  ‘The Guru’ says what many folk probably think after reading the book. The description of the teaching process as it is currently in the UK is a bit too polarising. As ‘The Guru’ says most poor teaching is exemplified by those teachers who use a strongly didactic approach. They fail to capture the interest of students and poor behaviour results. Also, I would add, that some of the proponents of the knowledge based approach, which is not Direct Instruction as described by John Hattie – more later on this, are quite inexperienced teachers and they are less able, often, to manage the learning behaviour of a class than more experienced colleagues. They don’t yet have the wealth of knowledge; they have not yet practised the art of behaviour management enough to be fluent in it. That will also apply to some experienced teachers who have not practised well enough to develop the skills to manage behaviour for learning. There will also be some SLTs who have not recognised or are not able or not willing to manage behaviour in their school so that their teachers are able to teach. It is complex stuff, with many facets.

But back to Daisy and her book. For me the science that matters is that of working memory. It is the best theory we have about how we learn. It is also quite simple. There is a finite limit to how many new things we can think about at one time. We can increase the complexity of that which we are able to think about if some of those things are in long term memory. That’s a bit brief but it does define how we learn and whatever we think about Guy Claxton and building learning power or any other system they MUST comply with working memory theory (WMT).

The implications of WMT are that we must teach knowledge, and lots of it to our students so that they can learn more complex things and that must practise to an appropriate degree of mastery so that they are fluent in the process needed to ensure future learning is based on knowledge in long term memory. A critical book to read is by Daniel Willingham, ‘Why Students don’t Like School‘. This really explains the process of knowledge acquisition fully and well. It is an easy book to read and makes so much sense. If I were still a head teacher i would buy this book for all my staff!

But… This is the bit that annoys me. Just because the initial knowledge process is dependent on WMT and other learning is driven by WMT it does not mean that all future learning is didactic teaching. After the knowledge is inside a student’s head the process of practice and exploration can be by the activity based stuff we all know works. Once students know what they need to know we can secure and deepen their understanding by engaging them in challenging work. That includes group work and probably all other activities that teachers have used for a long time.

The caveat is don’t teach the initial knowledge part in any way other than by didactic means. Didactic could be by reading and learning, or it could be by the teacher telling. What matters is that however we do the initial knowledge acquisition phase it is as uncluttered as possible. We can’t allow students to be distracted by any frippery – that’s not a word I often use – as the frippery takes up some of the student’s working memory and may stop the knowledge from  being learned.

Please stop using the term Direct Instruction. It is not the same as traditional teaching, or didactic, or anything else. DI is a very specific teaching system that is allied to computer aided instruction. Look it up on Wikipedia before you use it as a term. Or read this article by Englemann.

As I read Hattie he does not claim that anything other than DI is high up on the list of good ways to teach. DI uses WMT but a lot more in addition. Willingham does not use DI but bases his work around WMT.