Friday, March 2, 2012

When were we engaged?

Teach an engaging lesson and kids are engaged for a day. Teach them how to engage and they are set for a lifetime.
Teaching students how to engage entails: (1) identifying what engagement looks like; (2) setting the conditions under which engagement can occur; and (3) providing opportunities for them to reflect on their engagement. I described the first point here and the second here. In this post, I address the third point.

Confessions of a "bad" math teacher: I often confuse engagement with conformity. In the past, I have given a participation score based on how engaged my students were in doing the assigned work. If they did it all, then they got 100%. If they did half the work, they got 50% of the points. I have come to understand, however, that participation is not necessarily engagement. The Engagement Continuum shown below highlights the problem. While the students may have demonstrated interest in getting all the participation points, there is no evidence that they were truly engaged in the content.

Instead of offering participation points (faux engagement), I now ask students to demonstrate and reflect on their ability to engage. At the end of the semester, they turn in a predetermined number of workshops that provide evidence that they know what it takes to engage themselves. Their engagement score is dependent on their ability to identify their level of engagement and explain how they achieved that level.

Here is an example from this semester. At the end of our first unit, we make anchor charts about what it means to do mathematics. (I have written about this before.) I rarely give them enough time to complete their chart - just enough to have something to share with their peers. This is a draft completed by a group trying to use a blueprint for a school as an analogy for what we have been discussing in the unit.

After the class, the group stayed to complete their anchor chart. They didn't have to do any more work on it, but they wanted to finish it. It was interesting to listen in as they continued to attend to small details and talk to one another about their vision for their teaching.
One of them asked me if he could use this workshop as an engagement exemplar. I told him that any workshop, in class or assigned as homework, was available.

It was clear to me that this group was committed to completing the task, but where it fits on the Engagement Continuum is up to them to demonstrate. Only they know what was going on in their minds as they worked on this project. I am through trying to attach my own judgements regarding engagement to students' efforts. They need to be able to identify when they are engaged and determine how to replicate the conditions that led to their engagement.

I must say that I am interested in what they submit for their engagement exemplars - much more interested than when they simply recorded how many of the workshops they had completed. It is sort of funny; this approach has increased my engagement as well.


  1. Dave brings it up, I have to spend hours thinking about it. Sigh.

    But this has been rich territory. It has me looking for a middle road. I'm thinking we still need engaging lessons at some point - students need lower thresholds for entry to the wonderful world of engagement. But on other days, we need to consciously attend to the process of engagement. This creates a need for anchor lessons, memorable moments, or profound application. Those also provide some of the material for the student-generated engagement. It's more sustainable than how many teachers think now, as teachers don't need every lesson to be a home run. It's richer than a coverage class. Maybe that's the middle road.

  2. I am a firm believe in balance - but balance with a purpose.

    Teachers ought to plan engaging lessons much as someone might plan swimming lessons - to support the learners in improving their skill. I have a feeling this might be related to your idea of using anchor lessons as something learners can look back at and apply when they find their engagement lacking. The teacher can remind them of that lesson when they were engaging in learning, what they learned about engaging, and how they can apply that learning to the current lesson.

    Teachers also ought to plan lessons that they can authentically engage in themselves. If a teacher is excited about a topic and wants to take time/energy designing a lesson, making a video, or writing a song that represents their enthusiasm, then have at it. Learners need to have models of others engaging in learning.

    Making our motives explicit to ourselves and to our learners is an often overlooked part of the educational process.