I would like you to please take a moment and think about the last time you were engaged in learning. It might have been in a math class or listening to a TED Talk or reading a book. Whatever it was you were doing at the time, take a step back and create a mental picture of what this engagement looked like. We will be revisiting this image later, so please keep it in mind.
Engagement is central to learning. In his research on language acquisition, Dr. Brian Cambourne found it to be one of the conditions necessary for learning to occur. In fact, he saw engagement as the fundamental condition on which all the others are related. That is why it is at the base of his plan for teaching and learning that is shown below.
Teachers recognize the centrality of engagement and often talk about the need for writing engaging lessons. Recently, I have become uncomfortable with this view of engagement. I am afraid that we are confusing engagement with entertainment, and that we are disempowering and distracting students as a result.
This commentary comes from one of the U.S. science lessons (US4 Rocks) from the TIMSS videos. It highlights what is happening in a lot of classrooms:
I have a couple concerns about teachers' efforts to create all of these engaging/motivating lessons.
First, are we creating expectations for students that if a lesson does not engage them it is the teacher's fault? I sit on a lot of airplanes and I am always amazed at how many people are unengaged when the crew goes over the safety information. This is potentially a matter of life and death, and they still have a hard time getting passengers to pay attention. It may be my pessimistic nature or my interest in engagement, but I try to take in everything they say. I worry about my fellow passengers, but not as much as I worry about the students who may not have a teacher capable of designing the engaging lessons the students have come to expect. Cambourne calls students who have lost the ability to take responsibility for their learning "disempowered" and I would agree.
|Did this picture draw your interest and distract you from the message?|
I am also concerned that students are confusing entertainment with engagement. On one regional flight, I remember the crew ad libbed certain points of the safety talk. "In the event of a water landing the personal flotation device is your's to keep as our gift." I still remember the joke. I do not have a clue where that device was located, however (this was before I began engaging with the talk). In this case, they got my attention but distracted me from the important information. How often are students missing the point of the lesson when we try to gain their interest in extraneous ways?
Consequently, I see the development of engaging lessons as a possible impediment to sustainable learning. Engaging lessons make it more difficult for students to identify what engagement actually looks like. They come to view it as some external factor rather than a personal choice. Why is this a problem? Students who know what engagement looks like can self regulate their own learning; they can find ways to engage when important information is being shared in uninteresting ways. Students who cannot envision themselves engaging in "boring" material have ceded control of their learning to others.
Which brings me back to my original request. Please retrieve your image of engagement from the beginning of this post. Was it really engagement or merely entertainment? And if it was engagement, what did it look like? In the next post, I will share some ways other learners view engagement.