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

4 thoughts on “Engagement – too many meanings!

  1. This post to me seems to be an exercise in tautology, the sort of post one might expect from a consultant rather than a teacher. Either that or one of those bloggers who likes to split hairs.

    It seems to me engaging with/in an activity and in many cases thinking about engagement in an activity is precisely what most people would consider to be the process of learning.

    Despite the fact that the idea is raved over by one of the more outspoken bloggers (hair splitters) to me it seems a little daft.

    Designing learning activities that will interest learners seems to me to be what a teacher does. Thinking about what will interest learners (AKA what will facilitate intrinsic motivation) is what teachers do.

    If I have the choice between a fun engaging activity and a boring/laborious engaging activity I will tend to choose the former as enjoyment itself tends to facilitate motivation.

    If you wish to say that when a learner engages with an activity as part of the learning process one is engaging with the learning then I can't imagine anyone is going to care less. Other than said hair splitters obviously.

  2. A teacher who then became a head teacher, retired and then became a consultant. I think you may not yet thought enough about how children learn and the difference between participation and learning. But we all have our own views. There is a world of difference between engaging with and engaging in.

  3. I wouldn't say this post is about splitting hairs. To me, engagement means the extent to which pupils think about the learning. The activity can be fun or dull, as long as it gets them thinking about the learning. Once we understand what real engagement is the next question is how do we achieve it in the classroom? Does it come down to challenge? Perhaps that could be your next post Peter?


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