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.

3 thoughts on “Teachers do not have to engage students!

  1. Interesting distinction. One I like, hopefully through the comments below you can tell if I am on the same track as you.

    Sometimes when someone talks abstractly about teaching and lessons they remember the high energy lessons with laughing children and think that is what they are trying to attain each lesson in order to engage.

    A friend of mine is an incredible teacher, the students agree, the staff agree. The head doesn't agree. The lesson he observed lesson (on drugs in sport I think) was boring. Why does an outstanding lesson have to be entertaining?

    Focus, as you call it, is gained if you use strategies to increase confidence in students and this will help them to choose to engage. This does not require flashy activities, shiny ICT equipment or drawing on walls/windows/school play grounds etc, it requires a positive relationship with each student and a good dose of AfL.

  2. Thanks for this, Peter. It did make me think (and as I'm doing research at the moment I'm feeling particularly attuned to the 'confirmation bias'/'subjective validation' issue!)

    I do agree that we need to be aware of where 'engagement' (particularly of the 'entertainment' variety) distracts from the learning rather than reinforces it, but I also know that, as a learner, the relationship which is built between the teacher and me is crucial to my attention/motivation/understanding and appreciation of what I'm taught. I've seen this in my own teaching, too, with children and also with adults. Engagement seems to me a very important part of this building relationship.

    However, in my work with teachers/school leaders this year I will give more thought to the danger of them remembering the joke but NOT remembering the learning behind it. I absolutely agree that the learning, not simply the 'engagement', has to be the focus. As a beginning teacher I remember the 'breakthrough' moment of realising that what was most important was not that my classes liked me, but that we had a good working relationship and they learnt something! Thank you.

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