Engagement – too many meanings!

In thinking about engagement and what I want when I talk about engagement by children in lessons I am sometimes frustrated by the meaning some others attach to this word. In this post I want to try to define what I mean by engagement and what I do not mean. This is a prelude to exploring how we might teach, encourage, help children engage in lessons in a way that supports their learning.

This is part two. Part one is here.

What I do not mean by engagement.

Engagement – engaged to be married.

Engagement – I have an engagement. I need to go now. A meeting, event of some sort.

Engagement – I have been engaged to deliver an INSET Day at Bog Standard Comprehensive School

Engagement – I am engaged (taking part) in doing this activity.

Engagement – I am enjoying this activity. (I am quite happy with learning being enjoyable.)

Engagement – I am designing this activity so that the children will be engaged. So that children will be interested.

The last one is the one which I think is missing the point. I do not think we should have to try to get children to do the activities we have planned for their learning. I am assuming we will have planned these well but our primary thoughts will be what they need to learn; essentially, what they need to know.

What worries me is that teachers may distort the content, avoid the difficult stuff, by their perceived need to get children engaged, to get them to see the activity as interesting, fun, motivating etc. What this attitude leads to is desperate attempts to make learning fun, and so not boring. God forbid that children might just get on with the learning and trust the teacher has set work that will allow them to learn.

I am assuming we all know about internal motivation and how important it is to support that rather than using extrinsic rewards to drive a child to take part in the lesson.

A child who does not take part, who does not participate in the learning activities is either being set work which is too easy or too hard or is misbehaving. Too hard or too easy, if it is not just the child’s inaccurate perception, is a result of the teacher’s poor planning. If the child is misbehaving, refusing to do the work set, or not trying to do the work properly, then there are appropriate ways to deal with this. An appropriate way is not to make the work more attractive. We should not be bribing children to learn. We should have high expectations and so should they. If you are having to think too much about how to make the work attractive to the children in your class then you need to take a long hard look at the learning culture that exists in the class and perhaps in the school. Let me again make it clear that I have no issue with children enjoying the activities but I do not think we do our children a proper service by sugar coating the learning to make it palatable. learning is hard work and it needs to be recognised as worth doing.

The description of the engagement I want is encapsulated by the phrase:

Engagement in the learning, not engaging with the activity.

Engagement with the activity is superficial. The hope, I guess, is that the child learns, almost, by accident by completing the tasks set by the teacher. What I often see is children doing an activity and then the teacher identifies the learning outcomes that were expected. Not as reinforcement but to ensure the learning has happened. My question is, if the learning can be brought about by the teacher identifying the learning why do the activity? Perhaps the engagement engendered by the activity was not well focused? Perhaps the children were not engaging in the learning? Perhaps more thought needed to go into the activity and the ability of the children to actually engage in the learning rather than look for the fun!

With that as the definition of engagement my next, probably, post will be about how we might enable children to engage

Engagement. Teach children how to engage.

I have a view about engagement. My view is that engagement is not something teachers should be amending the learning plan to include. I am sure that adding engagement is not the best way to work with children. I think we may well be missing an opportunity and doing children a disservice for their future learning if we provide the engagement.

Children do need to engage in learning. It is axiomatic that to learn they must engage with the learning. I am saying that the engagement in learning is an internal process for a child. By trying to make a task engaging we are using external, extrinsic, motivation and the evidence is that intrinsic motivation is what we want. That is what will generate life long learners.

I want to distinguish between engaging with the task and engaging with the learning. When teachers add the engagement to make the activities enjoyable that is wrong, for me. When teachers create activities that challenge children and children meet those challenges effective learning can happen. When children know how to engage and how that leads them to learn great things can happen. I wish there was another word for making the activities engaging. I wish that teachers could distinguish between the two versions of engagement. One version is ‘willingly takes part’ and the other is ‘learns’.

Let me digress for a while. Please bear with me. We, my wife and I, have two dogs. Lovely Belgian Shepherds, Carlos and Merlin. As a breed one could say Belgians are enthusiastic, which makes them great dogs to train and very enjoyable to be with. But they are also quite excitable. When it is time to go out their preferred method was to wait for the inner door to be opened and then barge out past, and into, any object or human that was in the way in a rush to get to the door leading to the garden. They would knock over anything. The corridor to the external door was a wreck. If you have dogs you may well know the effect!

My wife was very angry that the dogs knocked everything down. My suggestion for a solution, which did not go down too well, was to say that the corridor should be cleared so that there was nothing to knock down. Seemed sensible to me. But my wife, who is not to be trifled with – let me assure you, said that this was certainly not the solution. She said I must train the dogs to go out sensibly. So, train them I did and we now have a much calmer time instead of the mad rush to exit. Stuff rarely gets knocked down and humans are reasonably safe. She was right. Doing the right thing, training the dogs is a much better solution. Removing stuff is a solution but it is a poor one. Took some time to teach the dogs to walk, calmly behind me to the exit door. Not as quick as just moving the stuff out of the way!

Creating engaging activities will mean that children enjoy their work but, for me, it is the wrong solution. They may not learn as effectively. We need a way of getting children to learn because they have the skills to learn, not because the teacher has managed to create a fireworks lesson which, I believe, might well distract from the learning rather than add to it. The impression is that children are learning when what is really happening is that are just waiting for the next enjoyable bit. Teacher as an entertainer. Or more cuttingly, teacher as a clown.

If we could teach children to engage in learning rather than have to be engaged by the teacher then we might have done them a real, life long favour. Or should we go for just clearing the corridor to the exit so that nothing gets knocked down?

In my next blog I am going to explore how we might teach children to engage. It will rely on the attitude my wife has. Do it properly and have rightly high expectations of behaviours. Perhaps she should write the blog. I love her lots.

Can I improve my students’ memory?

Treading of dangerous waters, here. But the following is a distillation of what I have read and hopefully understood about memory.

At some point your children will take exams and the more they can remember, facts and processes – know what and know hoy – the better they are likely to do in the exam, other things being equal.

It is important to be clear about two stages relating to memory.

The first is one that many teachers will already do well. Getting the stuff in. This starts with the teacher being very clear about what the student is to learn. Do they really need to hear, and potentially learn, that interesting story you always tell when teaching the topic? Really? I know you enjoy it and your children may well laugh but is it time well spent? Would it have been better to repeat the work in a different way rather than add a piece of narrative that is loosely connected to the thing you want them to learn?

That does not mean there should be no stories. Stories have a very special place in relation to learning. Stories seem to be privileged as routes into the brain. Stories place facts in a sequence and relate items together. Stories can change facts into understanding – or at least begin that process for our learners.

So the first feature of improving the memory of students is to be sure they receive the information they need. As rich as it needs to be and no more. If we think of this as a process model we want to refine the input so that what is presented is as accurate and complete as can be.

I do not mean spoon feeding nor rote learning. Both have their place in very specific setting but in general they will not lead to quality learning per se. There are reasons to make the learning a little more difficult that one might at first choose. Make the learners work a little harder to comprehend and their learning will be enhanced. Perhaps this works by priming their brain to activate the areas they already know which will relate to the new learning. There is some evidence that asking students to try to solve problems that they do not quite have all the required knowledge for enhances the learning hen that new knowledge is presented. Which knowledge we should present in this way and how often we should do this is a matter of professional judgement. I can see it would work for those students who were well motivated and somewhat tantalised by the puzzle aspects of such learning. But it could also be the case that some did not really try, knowing that they did not yet have enough information to resolve the puzzle. It might annoy some students who feel that the teacher should be providing the knowledge first.

Given the teacher is providing the knowledge to students the ability to explain clearly is paramount. Great teachers give great explanations. They pace the explanation that provides pace, possibly just a little faster than the students can easily manage but not so fast that they are lost. Make them work for it. Great explanations may well be a knife edge and that is difficult to define. Presenting work that is at the time just outside the student yet expecting them to keep up could be seen as an exemplification of high expectations. ‘I know you can do this’ is an attitude great teachers display to their students. Not dumbing down as this could be come just spoon feeding where the students do little thinking about the new knowledge as it is presented. Robert Bjork describes these as ‘desirable difficulties’. It is very well worth reading the details and watching the videos.

So we have carefully selected what is to be learned and we have constructed the explanation phase using the ideas of Robert Bjork. Our children surely know what they need to know. Sadly no. In most schools the above is often well done. In some classrooms too much emphasis is placed on discovery type learning. What these teacher probably believe is that children who ‘discover’ the knowledge will understand if better that ‘being told’. The evidence is that this is not true. At best children understand as well and in many cases they will not know as well. The major disadvantage for all children is that the discovery process takes so much longer. The second issue is that disadvantaged children do considerably less well than more advantaged children. The Matthew Effect prevails.

The second matter is to do with what, in my view, is less well done by many teachers. Once learned, ie in one’s brain, there is a need to practise recall. if we cannot recall then we cannot truly say something, in the academic sense, has been learned. The recall needs to be, as dog trainers know, proofed. I am in no way suggesting children are dogs other than to say that dogs trainers and good owners know that their dog needs to be taught to, say, sit in as many different environments and with as many different distractors as possible.

In multiple choice question parlance the wrong answers are called distractors. They are there to distract. The learning must be as secure as possible. So present children with answers that are similar, more similar as they become more secure. Make sure they are answering from their knowledge rather than using other clues. (Other clues are fine once we know they are secure in their learning.)

Testing, children testing the extent to which they know something, is an underused technique to aid memory. Not an important test like the one to decide which set you are in for GCSE physics but low stakes, the outcome is for you to know what you now need to relearn type of tests. We need lots of these. Short tests where the feedback allows a child to realise what he/she knows and does not know. If possible to know why they don’t know whatever has been tested. Proper diagnostic testing. Teachers can write these tests. They do not have to be something external but it does require some thought if the test outcome is to be more than a simple list of what the child has answered correctly and what incorrectly. Write the test so that the outcome is for the child and not for the teacher to be able to record a mark.

So clarity of input and checking of what has been properly learned will support memory and recall.