Reframing ‘engagement’ in the classroom
Any mention of ‘engagement’ in the education Twittersphere or blogosphere will create a flurry of emotive debate. To many, it is now a dirty word, summoning up caricatures of content-free, gimmick-laden teaching, in which the aim is simply to engage so that learning somehow follows. In fact, there is a strand of discourse in which even considering how to engage pupils, or to think that anything other than ‘learning itself’ or ‘the richness of the subject’ is motivation enough, is a failing – a sort of lowest common denominator approach.
Of course, this is in reaction to historical imbalance. In training, I use videos of exemplar ‘Outstanding’ lessons from just five or six years ago, to show how remarkably empty of learning a lesson can be when it is designed around activity and engagement. And the idea that pupils will ‘behave’ if only a lesson is made engaging enough is, of course, very dangerous.
I have started talking about ‘investment’ rather than ‘engagement’. I think it gets closer to what we should really be talking about. Noting that ‘pupils were engaged’ can mean little; however, noting that ‘pupils were invested’ implies that they were more than just on task. The question ‘How will you make sure that pupils invest?’ seems more useful than ‘How will you make sure that pupils are engaged?’ and pre-empts confusion of activity with learning. Investment is about making an input for gain, not just joining in. It is more than just absorbtion or enjoyment – both desirable, but not the same as learning.
In my subject, securing investment usually means ensuring that pupils are prepared to think or imagine as deeply as possible. To a large extent, this is done by teachers teaching well – by explaining, modelling, questioning and feeding back as skilfully as possible. But I think there is more to consider than that.
‘Investment’ and behaviour
I am not an expert on behaviour – far from it. However, I have mentored, coached and trained teachers who are working hard to secure good behaviour for learning, and I have often reflected with teachers on lessons in which classroom management has been an issue.
I have found the following ‘model’ to be useful when reflecting on practice. It is, of course, full of flaws (and anything in education which is represented with triangles should never be trusted) but I have found it to have some pragmatic worth.
To secure their investment, pupils need to be challenged at the right level: by activities, texts and ideas which are not too difficult but not too easy; by exacting feedback and skilful questioning; and by high expectations – explicitly communicated and implicit within the culture of the classroom.
Pupils also need clarity – about the what, the how and the why of the learning, and about what is expected of them. (This doesn’t mean that they need explicit ‘learning objectives’ or detailed success criteria, but it does imply the need for clear instructions and a sense of direction.)
But pupils also need to be motivated to invest. This may well be by the learning itself, or by extrinsic sanctions and rewards; but it may well also be by the intrinsic pleasures and satisfactions offered by texts or activities. These may appeal to pupils’ imaginations, to their playfulness, to their competitiveness, to their enjoyment of solving problems, and so on.
Meanwhile, teachers manage behaviour. They set up organisational and ritual structures to support and promote learning. They enforce classroom rules to allow and to protect learning. They also expect and build productive relationships, between teacher and pupils, and between the pupils themselves.
All of these things run into each other, and the schematic emphasises the connection between the securing of pupils’ investment and the managing of behaviour in the classroom. There is a ‘concrete’ layer to all this – elements which can be easily observed in the classroom. There is also a more ‘abstract’ layer – elements which are harder to observe directly or even to deduce.
Of course, different teachers will have different views on what sorts of structure are important, what rules there should be and how they should be enforced, what ‘relationship’ really means and which kinds of motivation are valid or appropriate. But I’m fairly certain they will all be in play somewhere.
And yes, it is a bit complicated. That – along with all this – is why it does take a while for teachers to feel experienced. And it’s why telling new teachers that all they have to do is plan engaging lessons, or that all they have to be is knowledgeable and strict, just isn’t good enough.
I would be interested in any thoughts on the usefulness or not of this, as a tool for reflection on teaching or as a way to think about behaviour for learning. As I say – I am very far from being an expert.
See also: Who is doing what in the classroom?