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Don’t just engage!

Posted on: September 18, 2014

I did not have the heart to answer this question in the #asiaED slow chat. As much as I like to create cognitive dissonance, I know that some teachers will take offense to what I have to say. My response is also longer than 140 characters.

When I ask teachers why they take my courses or workshops on game-based learning, flipped learning, or ICT-enabled change management, some invariably answer “I want to know how to engage my students!”

It is the wrong question for teachers to ask and seek answers to. I hinted strongly at this when I answered the first #asiaED question (why is student engagement so important?).

I think the question should be: How can we maximize student learning?

The question might sound broad, but it is the central purpose of teaching. Engagement is just one aspect of maximizing learning, and one that teachers often mishandle.

Engagement often becomes the end instead of the means. When this happens, teachers might try to be cool, focus on entertaining or distracting, or forget why a strategy and tool were employed in the first place.

Focusing on engagement without a larger purpose or alignment to objectives and assessment is a mistake because teachers will try to feed the part of the brain that is greedy and seeks instant gratification. If teachers cannot keep up, engagement becomes a toggle that can be just as easily switched off as it can be switched on.

Teachers sometimes do not see themselves making this mistake. The students, while in the moment, are unlikely to see it because they are otherwise “engaged”. But if both parties ask “What did we really learn?” and come up empty or provide unconvincing answers, then the problem is likely the emphasis of engagement over learning.

Engagement is not just about fun or letting learners loose. But it is very tempting for teachers to do this because of what they see in the faces of their students when they do this.

Learning is hard, but it does not have to be painful all the time. It can and should be fun, especially when you want to leverage on the natural instinct to play. Learning should also be driven by curiosity and questions because that is another set of attributes we have been endowed with.

But the strategy and tool use should not be merely to engage. The class should not play a game because it is engaging. There should not be a free and open discussion just because it is engaging.

An educator should design for meaningful learning instead, i.e., help learners to

  • associate meaning
  • find meaning
  • negotiate meaning, and
  • create meaning.

As much as possible, an educator should bring the real world into the classroom for every concept and lesson so that learners associate these with their lives now or near future. There should also be a clear alignment to objectives and assessment.

Sometimes the real world application must be delayed. In these situations, learners should be pushed to find meaning. This is like trying to justify the importance of a concept or lesson.

Whether the authenticity of a lesson is quickly associated or gradually found, all learners should be allowed to negotiate meaning. Given that each learner is at a different starting point, the overall strategy could be to provide opportunities for flexible learning. Only then do the tools to enable this sort of learning come into focus.

Side note: Promoting flexible learning is easier now given the variety of tools and resources learners have access to. Theoretically. Schools often limit kids to standardized textbooks and pencils. Outside of school, kids have access to computing devices, knowledgeable individuals, a supportive community, etc.

Negotiation is a messy process and teachers need to model and guide students in their thinking. A possible old school analogy is a shepherd guiding his sheep in a general direction.

Negotiation is somewhat ephemeral, so learners should be required to show evidence of learning by creating. The purpose of creating is to externalize the thoughts and feelings of learners so that their peers and instructor can help them along.

All this is difficult and this is what makes lessons truly engaging.

For some teachers, students looking excited is a sign of engagement. I can relate. But I also try to create the conditions of the furrowed brow, a heated argument, projects that fail forward, and deep reflection. My learners are truly engaged when they struggle meaningfully.

2 Responses to "Don’t just engage!"

Great post, and excellent points about the importance of maximising learning and having meaningful engagement! Because you can have engaging content, but learn nothing from it (e.g. soccer game-like quizzes in a customer service unit)


Thank you for the support. I appreciate it as there will be some who won’t see the distinction I am trying to make. As a teacher educator and classroom supervisor, I have observed more than my fair share of “engaging” classes that are not meaningful.


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