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Posts Tagged ‘engagement

I continue from yesterday’s reflection about “engagement” and why it does not guarantee learning.

One of the best things I discovered from my shallow dive into this rabbit hole was a resource from 2017 from Paul Kirshner. He shared how the rhetoric and practice of engagement were shortcuts for teaching and learning. This aligned to my educator’s philosophy that anything worth doing is difficult.

Even better were the slides Kirschner highlighted from a 2015 presentation by Rob Coe of Durham University. These were shared in a blog entry by Carl Hendrick titled Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

The highlighted slides are worth a few minutes read and both blogs deserve click-through traffic.

I will just say this. A rabbit hole is indicator, an actual rabbit is evidence. Students might look like they are learning. What matters if they actually do. We need to focus on strategies that matter.

What might these strategies be? A slide from Coe’s presentation offers some suggestions: Feedback, metacognition, peer teaching.

I went down a shallow rabbit hole after my RSS feed that revealed how a teacher confused engagement for learning.

This was her plan:

I had planned what I thought was a brilliant lesson that would feed my love for scrapbooking and get students to connect their learning about the early civilizations. I set up each table as a different cultural component of a civilization: government, geography, religion, economics, and education. There were magazines, research materials, colored pencils, scrapbooking paper, and other materials on each table. Students had to complete an activity by sharing and questioning each other.

When debriefed on her lesson, she was challenged with the question: Were they learning, or was it just “pretty”? When she looked at students reflections, she realised that they could remember the activities but not the content. She concluded that while the engaging activities might be vehicles of learning, they were not necessarily indicators of learning.

My blog will reveal how long I have been against the rhetoric on engagement, but I do have to question why the:

  • recall of content was the only measure of learning
  • sharing and peer teaching were not also measures of learning
  • products of learning were prioritised over the processes of learning

That said, I agree that lessons that look “pretty” because they seem active may come across as “engaging” while not offering much by way of learning. But I would not use the vehicle/indicator references.

Instead, I consider the activities as possible indicators of learning, e.g., time spent reading, quality of peer teaching, level of reflection. But all these are not evidence of learning as measured by a specific tool.

The tool might be a paper test, performance, community project, etc. Only when externalised and applied meaningfully is there evidence of learning of new information, attitudes, or skills.

This was my reflection of the first room down the rabbit hole of engagement, learning, indicators, and evidence. More on the same tomorrow in Part 2.

This long-ish Instagram post by Edutopia described the desire and call to engage students as a trap. I could not agree more.

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The 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Southeast Asia created the loudest sound ever reported. This tidbit might lead you to ask your students: “What do you imagine a volcanic eruption sounds like?” Watch as 28 kids’ faces light up—you’ve got their attention. But is this information relevant to your upcoming geology lesson about volcanoes? ⁣ ⁣ When teachers infuse lessons with interesting but irrelevant information—known as seductive details—research shows it decreases student learning, writes Kripa Sundar, PhD, a researcher and education consultant. This might be because seductive details can distract students from essential content, dilute their attention with too much information, or confuse them by calling up irrelevant prior knowledge, says Sundar. ⁣ ⁣ Based on her analysis of more than 50 research studies, here are three tips from Sundar for navigating the use of attention-grabbing details in your lessons: ⁣ ⁣ 1. Use restraint: It’s OK to occasionally use fun seductive details, like a GIF or a quick story shared in class. These won’t hamper learning too much because they catch kids’ attention but also signal that the information is meant just for fun. It’s images or sections of text containing irrelevant information that distract or confuse students, especially kids who don’t have enough prior knowledge to contextualize the information. ⁣ ⁣ 2. Rethink your graphics: Cut out information that makes the material look pretty—stock photos, for example—but doesn’t add value to the content. Instead, focus on useful and aesthetically pleasing design elements like having clear titles or using borders and blocks to highlight ideas. ⁣ ⁣ 3. End with clarity: Seductive details are especially counterproductive when placed at the end of a lesson where they may disrupt students’ understanding of the topic. Instead, wrap up your lesson by revisiting key ideas, or try quick strategies like retrieval practice to make the lesson stick. ⁣ ⁣ Link in bio. ⁣ ⁣ #StudentEngagement #BrainBasedLearning #EducationResearch #TeachersOfInsatgram #EducationResearch

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I would add that playing the engagement game puts the focus on the teacher who has to keep devising ways to use shiny objects instead of nurturing student ownership and empowerment.

Engagement has short term goals and little gains if any. Empowerment is a long term journey that does not hide the fact that students must struggle and make the effort to change and learn.

Engagement is a trap because can keep the teacher in a bubble of superficial teaching. Empowerment bursts that bubble and forces both teachers and students to question their roles and challenge themselves.

Telling people they must “social distance” in the age of COVID-19 is an important but abstract message. It does not tell describe the ease of infection and the consequence of not being physically apart or even isolated.

The video in the tweet above makes the abstract concept more concrete. In the realm of communication and teaching, one might say that the video “engages” because it is short and visually interesting.

I enjoyed the illustration and see how it is a means to an end, i.e., communicating effectively in a bid to change behaviours. But here is the rub — it is not enough to engage because that is about getting and holding attention.

To change behaviour, one also has to provide agency and to empower. There is far too much rhetoric on engaging our learners. There is not enough on empowering them to change, learn, and make a difference.

Agency is giving learners the opportunities to make decisions. Empowerment is enabling them to take meaningful and self-driven action.

A basic prerequisite of learning is attention. If the attention of students is not on an activity or an experience, they are unlikely to learn from it.

If they are not dedicating one or more sense-gathering processes, there is nothing to post-process. Put plainly, if students are not watching a video closely or listening carefully to instructions, they are unlikely to benefit from a learning activity.

Now that scenario presumes a teacher-led classroom. This is a fair assumption to make as most classrooms are designed for teaching. If they were designed for learning, students might be able to conduct independent work or use other resources to learn.

So back to attention.

When you want students to pay attention, you try your best to engage them. But if you want students to give attention, you need to empower them. Therein lies a fundamental difference between teaching that is largely delivery-oriented and facilitating from a meddler-in-the-middle.

As I was grading the work of future instructors, this saying came up a few times: A picture paints a thousand words.

What they meant: Go beyond text and provide richer media like photos or videos because these can say much more.

I concur, but I also commented: There are also a thousand different messages and interpretations of the same image.

If you take only a teacher’s perspective, you see the need to engage with media that attract and hold the attention of students. The rationale might be: I cannot say so much in so little time, so I want to let the medium do it for me.

I use the learner’s point of view. What would a learner think or say? How many variants are there from one expected answer? Which of the interpretations are creative, critical, both creative and critical, superficial, non-sensical, etc.?

I use this CC-licensed image in various ways. One is to illustrate the importance of communication during systemic or organisational change.

The image never fails to get a variety of responses. There are often as many different interpretations as there are people in the room. Some focus on individuals, others on two or all three. Yet others comment on the expressions, orientation, gender, or even the lack of colour in the photo.

An image can paint a thousand words. But whose words do they belong to? Only the teacher who seeks to engage or also the students who are empowered?

This visual practically speaks for itself. Where it does not might be the belief system of teachers or educators.

As good as their intentions might be, teachers who want to engage their learners might be focusing on teacher needs. I need you to pay attention, I wish you would be interested in this boring topic, I want you to learn this.

Compare this to educators who take a different stance of creating and nurturing the need to learn amongst their students. The focus is questions that drive learning. Why is this important? How does this help me today and tomorrow? What do I have to do to learn this?

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.

About a week ago, I mentioned that engagement was when, not just what or how.

I thought I should have provided an example of what engagement is not.

Engagement is not enticing kids in a classroom by showing them a YouTube video.

If a teacher does not align the use of the video with the objectives, then the teacher wants the attention of students and to feel like s/he is being effective. After all, don’t sparkly eyes and excitement mean students are engaged which then means they are learning?


To engage, the teacher must stop talking and controlling. The students must start doing. They must struggle, suggest, and solve.

The task must be difficult but meaningful. If is too easy, the “engagement” is short term and operates like a rapidly flipping switch. The teacher is forced to “engage” (entertain) frequently instead of facilitating powerfully.

I have reflected several times about the issue of “engaging learners”.

I have said engagement is not enough. I have practically declared war on using technology simply to engage.

I forgot to mention something I curated a while ago: Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of students doing meaningful work.

That last one is probably the most impactful statement to translate into practice.

If you do this, you focus on educating, not entertaining. If you do this, you focus on what really works instead of fleeting gimmicks.

If you do this, you do not just tell your students things they can Google for themselves. You design meaningful un-Googleable tasks that rivet your learners to the process of learning, so much so that they forget that you are around.

You see engagement when it happens. It is less about what you do and more about what they do. It is less about how you teach and more about how they learn.


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