Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘engaging

There are four Es that teachers and educators need to distinguish in edtech.

Enhancing: When you enhance a process or product with technology, you add some value to something that can already be done. Type-written documents are enhancements over hand-written ones.

Enabling: When you enable something, that task was previously not possible or very difficult to do without the technology. Consulting directly with an expert over a video conference or co-building in Minecraft with partners who are physically halfway around the world is enabling.

Helping a hearing-impaired learner hear with cochlear implants or having speech converted in real-time to text is enabling. So is providing noise-cancelling headphones to a learner who suffers from sensory overload or one who simply likes quiet.

Engaging: This is a teacher constantly trying to keep and maintain the attention of students. YouTube videos, quick polls, video games, and Internet memes are ways to instructionally engage a group.

Empowering: This is an educator nurturing more independent learners who problem-seek and problem-solve. Empowering edtech is virtually indistinguishable from everyday technology, e.g., Google, voice assistants, Wikipedia, social media, etc.

The four Es are not mutually exclusive. A strategy that starts with enhancing/engaging might have enabling/empowering as an end goal.

Sadly, the four Es are not given equal air time. Most administrative and policy documents seem to stop at “enhancing lessons with technology” or “creating engaging lessons with technology”. Very few progressives explore the more difficult but also more meaningful enabling and empowering with technology.

Hot on the heels of Apple’s recent education event came this tweet from @AppleEDU:

Here was a critical response:

I agree. The equation of fun = engaging = learning is flawed.

Something that is fun might be engaging, but does not mean that the right gears are in play.

For example, a teacher might introduce a mobile or online game to teach a math skill or language concept. A student might play the game — typically a quiz in disguise — to get a high score, but learn little, if anything at all.

This happens when the teacher focuses on the game or content instead of factoring in the learner’s prior knowledge and cognitive schema. Doing the latter activates the right gears in the learner before they start a meaningful learning journey.

Something engaging still does not guarantee learning. When a teacher tries to engage learners with iPads or Chromebooks, this is an external hook or lure. The stimulus comes from without.

Empowerment comes largely from within. It might start with an engaging hook, but the teacher must also provide learner choice and agency. A teacher teaches; only a learner learns.

Entire school districts might commit to Apple’s new offering. They might also opt for the technical training it offers for teachers. But all these are pointless if there is no socio-technical professional development (PD), i.e., one that focuses on both pedagogy and technology. Such PD is about activating schema and empowering learners with technology. It is not about putting one above the other, i.e., pedagogy over technology, or technology over pedagogy.

Video source

Here is some free PD: The video above and the one embedded in the AppleEDU tweet hint at what empowered students look like. They learn by doing and they create.

However, neither video shows the teacher’s role in all this. Neither video shows what the gaps are, how wide they are, or how to bridge those gaps. This is PD that school administrators and policymakers need to plan and pay for. This is PD that teachers must demand. This is PD that people who live in the nexus of pedagogy and technology — people like me — can provide.

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.

Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.

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.

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.

Do we have to teach naked? That’s a provocative a title, but thankfully it is not the headline for another school-related scandal. Teaching naked refers to bare bones (or bare skin) teaching.

Instead, the article explores the discrepancy between what technologies professors use in class and what students expect to use:

…students and teachers have potentially different skill sets, but more importantly, we’re at the point where it seems apparent that we prefer different kinds of technologies to learn, communicate, create, connect, and participate…


The author of the article then suggests the SlideShare presentation above on how to bridge that participation gap. Know what they like and don’t like: They don’t like death by PowerPoint; they do like archivable podcasts and social media. My takeaway? Meet them where they are already at rather than build elaborate bridges that no one uses.

But there is a problem with only doing that. They are not necessarily into Google Docs or wikis or shared concept maps or even blogs. Yet these tools (and their accompanying methods) are useful now and in their future. My suggestion? Use the social bridge to connect to these tools and strategies. Meet them where they are at, but also bring them on other meaningful journeys.

In other words, it is not prudent to teach naked because the environment has changed. Put on the bits that will make your body of teaching meaningful and engaging!

There has been a spate of teaching-related articles and forum letters in the press of late.

One topic of discussion has been the recruitment of teachers with passion and compassion. I totally agree, but I cannot even begin to suggest how we determine this with our current recruitment process.

Instead I think that contract teaching should be compulsory for all recruits before they undergo training in NIE. This will solve the chronic need for relief teachers and allow undecided folk to determine if they have the DNA for teaching. School authorities can also help MOE and NIE weed out the chaff. Other benefits of such an arrangement are a closer relationship with schools and a return to more practice-based teaching.

Admittedly this is quite an adminstrative challenge and the apparent influx and efflux of staff at the school level can seem disruptive. But I think that disruption can be minimised if each teacher recruit has the same contract, practicum, and eventual school posting.

The other hot topic is the type of schooling that students experience nowadays. Parents and journalists have been lamenting that school is “no fun”. Their solution? Bring back the fun.

This is where the responses can get interesting. I recall reading an article about the inventor of the Brain Age game (and many others as well) saying that learning should be hard, not fun. That might sound strange coming from a person who designs video games.

He has a point: Some learning requires learners to get stuck, struggle, try different approaches, etc. The experience is engaging and emotional, and when learners overcome the problem, they remember it well.

But that is only one side of the story. What if learners take the same struggle, but have fun and remember and apply what they learned as a result? This approach flies in the face to the common perception that playing games or having fun does not lead to any learning. As my trainees will eventually discover, it is possible to use game-based strategies to promote both formal and informal learning.

Nonetheless, I think that the issue is not whether school is fun or not. The greater issue is whether we are engaging our students. We do this not by merely have sporadic fun or cool activities, but by making learning challenging and meaningful over a prolonged period of time. As educators, we need to create and maintain an ecosystem of engaged learning, not just one or two lessons that are out of the ordinary.

The question that begs to be asked is HOW do we as educators do this? This is why we offer AED104/QED522 as a core course for all teachers-to-be.

A blog subject like “Things I hate about teaching” is bound to catch the eye and set tongues and fingers a-wagging. It was posted on around Teachers’ Day no less.

This blog entry by a teacher was featured by stomp, but I don’t know how many 1) bothered to read everything, 2) understood what a teacher might go through, 3) read the original source, and 4) realised that it was posted two years ago (based on the time stamp)!

From a teacher educator’s point of view, this makes me ask:

  • Did the teacher cross any lines? Just what are these lines?
  • How does edublogging differ from mainstream blogging? What are the trade offs?

Here’s my observation: At the moment, the 25 responses for the blog entry span two years and included comments from teachers from other countries. How’s that for engagement and impact?


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: