Engagement. If you’re anywhere near edutwitter and edchats, you know the term is a stalwart in the vernacular of educators…and for good reason. In my opinion, engagement should be a central feature of the classroom. WIthout it, the student cannot learn and if we’re not learning, what’s the point? I think most would agree that engagement is quite important in the classroom. I do wonder; though, about a definition for the word. Recently, in an edchat, the topic was classroom environment. A question asked what teachers could do to make their classrooms engaging…of course, the popular answers involved placing students in collaborative groups, flipping the classroom, creating something, etc. There’s nothing really wrong with this, but it got me thinking about the ability to ‘see’ engagement and whether the seating arrangement of a classroom can create engagement.
So, I want to propose a simple question that can, hopefully, clear this up a bit:
Which of the following images shows student(s) engaged?
I believe there’s an argument that both and/or neither could show students engaged. What is engagement? For me, it’s about cognition. Engagement is thinking, applying, schema assimilation and accommodation, questioning, predicting, etc. It can be done through a conversation with classmates. It can also be done through reading and answering multiple-choice questions. The most important aspect of engagement is the mental work you do with the material; attempting to recognize or recall information and apply this knowledge in other scenarios, for example. I guess the overall point I’m trying to make is that engagement isn’t something you can infer from smiling faces or a classroom arrangement. Engagement is what the brain attends to.
So, if by looking at the two images above, you believe one shows student engagement over another…you could be quite wrong. Just because students are in conversation or not or are seated facing other students or not, one shouldn’t infer any level of engagement. Dennis Lehane is my favorite author of fiction (you should really check out his stuff). I am very engaged when I read his books. There’s no creation of anything…no collaboration…just one person quietly reading. Just one person engaged with words on a page; lost in another world filled with good guys, bad guys, and psychological shenanigans. I know, I know…not everyone loves to read, so that doesn’t work for everyone. I would add that not everyone loves to collaborate. Teachers should be careful when giving student choice in the classroom. Often times, the students who speak up are the ones who want collaboration and the silent students would rather complete their work independently. Unfortunately, whose student voice is more likely to be both literally and figuratively heard?
How can teachers and students measure engagement if it occurs in the brain? Assessment. This can be assessment through answering multiple-choice questions, through a discussion board, creating a manipulative, etc. Students need to think with the material they’ve been engaged with. If they cannot retrieve that information when needed and use it appropriately to satisfy the parameters of the given assessment, ultimately they don’t know it well enough. This can lead to a fruitful discussion and reflection with students on their study habits during class and at home. Perhaps placing the cell phone out of reach and turning off the music or television could lead to better engagement? There is every chance students do not realize how distractions in the learning environment can deter engagement with material.
When teachers, students, administrators, and parents consider engagement, we need to understand that it is more than fun posters you may have on your wall or how flexible your seating is. Engagement is an act of mental commitment to a given task.