When I started as a Newly Qualified Teacher in 2007, the concept of student engagement was about how much active “doing” you can cram into a lesson. There is nothing wrong with active learning, just when it becomes active for active sake. Ofsted temporarily went down this road when an “Outstanding” lesson included music and how many star jumps the students performed. I remember the lead inspector once saying to me that if I continued teaching at that level I would burn out.
Since then Ofsted has wised up, as did I, to the fact that jumping up and down and making snow cones may be entertaining but in the majority of cases students were not learning. Michael Cladingbowl turned the teaching world upside down with the removal of teacher grading and placing the emphasis of judging the quality of teaching back on “learning” not “doing”. Though I agree with Ofsted, it exposed another issue – what is engagement?
I have worked with many teachers discussing engagement and what it means to us (and Ofsted). The general consensus is that engagement is still “doing”. For example, many contributed engagement to “paying attention”, “behaving” and “being active”. These examples may contribute to the multi-layers of learning, however, it becomes difficult to see how they were directly impacting learning. To illustrate, good behaviour sets the stage for learning – yes, however, a quiet pupil does not mean they are engaged or learning.
It also became apparent that our conversations were mainly focused on activities or actions and not taking in account other factors that impact engagement in the classroom. This led me to the work of Leah Taylor and Jim Parsons who identify five common elements that can improve student engagement and achievement.
- Interaction: Are you providing opportunities for students to interact in lesson? Yes, it is active and doing but well planned lessons with a focus on collaborative learning can be a powerful learning tool. Neil Mercer’s research on group work and pupil talk is a must read and he examines the importance to develop the correct ways in which students converse and interact. It also includes the interaction between the teacher and student. Strong, respectful relationships can improve student engagement. As Rita Piersons says students “don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
- Exploration: Plan lessons that are challenging, problem-based and that allow for discovery. Allow for students to find solutions and answers. Give the students a challenge and guide them to the finish line. In this case the adult becomes more of a facilitator than a teacher.
- Relevancy: It is making the curriculum content applicable to real-life scenarios, linking it to authentic issues home and abroad. For example, in history, I made links between the US civil war and the civil war in Syria. Different reasons, yet, my objective was to help them understand the meaning of a civil war. Making the learning relevant helped the students make sense of what happened in the US over 100 years ago and what is happening today in Syria.
- Multi-media. Appropriate use of technology in the classroom can facilitate discovery and ignite interest. Technology should be used to enhance learning. A powerful use of multimedia is connecting students with experts or parts of the world that reinforces their learning. It can also enhance creativity and stretch the students imagination to problem solve and open new doors of thinking. Students should not be “doing” technology but “learning” from it.
- Instruction: This focuses on how and what we teach. It works two-fold. The first being the teacher in their planning and creating a safe learning environment. It’s about the teacher being creative, taking risks and reflecting to provide students with a rich learning experience. Second, the importance of those controlling the curriculum and how it is mapped out cannot be underestimated. Does the curriculum allow for teachers to engage pupils? Does it allow for interaction and exploration? Is it relevant? Is technology applicable?
The teachers I was working with found the 5 common elements of student engagement useful (as did myself) in re-examining engagement in the classroom at the micro and macro level of planning and pedagogy. It broadens the definition of engagement and creates new paths to help teachers engage students. So with careful planning “doing” becomes “learning” and the star jump lessons stay in the past.