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.

2 thoughts on “Who is responsible for engagement in learning?

  1. A very interesting and timely post with us all returning to the fold about now.

    I agree with much of the sentiment, but this bit worries me a little..

    “What this says is that engagement is a function of the student. Not a function of the lesson”

    I think what is says is that engagement is also a function of student ability and willingness to engage. However, I have seen many lessons which almost seem to be designed to prevent the student from engaging.

    I believe it is the teacher's responsibility to design a lesson that the majority (if possible all) of the students can engage in without too much difficulty.

    Then if there is no engagement then one can look to the student.

    I would change one of your statements by adding to it as follows…

    “The responsibility of the student is to be engaged” when presented with a suitable opportunity to be engaged.

    I would be very interested to know whether people think I have this completely wrong.


  2. Peter: Thanks for your thoughts, which I always find interesting and which make me think!

    In response to your comment that 'Resilience and pride in their own learning' can't be 'created' in a lesson, my initial thoughts were that these qualities/attitudes can certainly be encouraged/fostered over time by a skilful and caring teacher. Similarly, as a head, I recognised the importance of staff being positive and having healthy self-esteem and self-awareness. I knew this wasn't something I could 'create'/'control', but I did believe that as school leader I could work to create a climate within which these things were more likely to thrive. Is the same true of pupil engagement? What do you think?

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