Friday, February 10, 2012

What have you got against engaging lessons?

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:
Motivating activities were defined as those activities likely to capture many students' interest and included jokes and humor, games, puzzles, role plays, artistic projects, dramatic events, physical activity, prizes or other rewards, anecdotal stories, or outdoor excursions. Motivating activities accounted for 23% of the U.S. lesson time (Video Report, figure 10.6). They occurred in 63% of the U.S. lessons, which was more frequent than in all the other countries except for Australia (Video Report, figure 10.5).
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 (i.e. entertaining) 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.

Updated (4/28/14): I saw this example of an entertaining flight attendant on Facebook. How much of the important information would these passengers remember in an emergency?


  1. I definitely agree that "gimmicky" lessons aren't the way to go. This is something I struggled with because I always wanted to make my math lessons "fun" and I felt like I was failing my students if I didn't have some silly game or example problem to throw at them. It took me a while to realize that the material itself should be what engages them, not the bells and whistles I'd couched the material in. I needed to find ways to draw them into the material itself, and I think one good way to do this is to show them how to analyze situations from their own lives with the math material we're studying. Unfortunately, how to do this is really tricky. I did one really nice lesson over linear regression where students analyzed the increases in college tuition over the years and reflected on what it meant for their own college ambitions, but sometimes the math they're learning isn't directly applicable. I think that we also need to make the logic that structures math apparent to students because this logical system is engaging in its own right as it is so puzzle like in nature. I think giving students too many formulas and algorithms to follow clouds the logic runs through all mathematical processes, yet it's this logic that is so fascinating.
    I am trying to teach math as a logical system based on simple premises. Premises that we can play with and manipulate to help us create new rules to analyze more complex problems. If taught this way, math becomes a puzzle, not work. I hope that this will show students how engaging math inherently is. I'm still trying to figure out how to do this however.

  2. Lizzy-Sensi,
    I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and your struggles. You are not alone. Engagement has a lot to do with learners being able to make their own connections and building logical structures that make sense to them. But there is so much more to engagement.

    Don't panic (I love "Hitchhiker's Guide..."). We are in this together. And we will figure this teaching thing out - watch for upcoming posts.

  3. David,

    In my opinion, engaging lessons challenge. They get to the point, or, perhaps more appropriately, to the question. They demand action and activity that immerse us in their current and carry us into flow. They tease our curiosity, opening more puzzles as we dig deeper into them. They gratify our need to beat the challenge, but only through merit.

    I never considered "decorated" lessons as engaging. In fact, I agree with you and think they are distracting, even irritating. Decoration (special delivery and activity methods or "showy" content) also dilutes the lesson, making it ineffective.

    I remember learning, through theory and experience, that writing less makes for a stronger story. The same is true for a lesson. Only the essential and arbitrary should be presented, so that the students can learn the rest.

    The last task I did not initiate that engaged me is a challenge recently tweeted by David Wees. I decided to tackle this problem using grid paper and a pencil and found the process and product quite exhilarating. I enjoyed it even more because the challenge revealed a new method of engaging others and introducing a process and concept, and provided a product one could play with and learn more from.

    Simple and provoking is better.


  4. Thanks for this post, David.

    This is an interesting question, isn't it. The word "engaging" immediately caught my eye, as I talk to my preservice teaching students all the time about planning and teaching "engaging" lessons.

    But then the list you quoted worried me: "jokes and humor, games, puzzles, role plays, artistic projects, dramatic events, physical activity, prizes or other rewards, anecdotal stories, or outdoor excursions".

    These are fine *in moderation*, as an occasional reward, an occasional motivator, as a way to capture students' interest (perhaps for the first time in some cases), etc. But for TIMSS to put up this list looks like an encouragement to teachers to make sure all their lessons include at least one item on the list, and perhaps to focus on these "frills" and luxuries rather than engaged thinking about what is being learned.

    I agree with the previous two commenters. But I wonder if sometimes, for some students artificial motivators like these are needed to (re)capture students' attention and to motivate them to concentrate and work out answers.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      This may be my own bias, but I do not think that the TIMSS researchers were suggesting that the "motivating activities" were something positive. I get the sense that they see such actions as representing distractions because they are often only slightly related to the learning focus. I would encourage you to check out the video and the full commentary in order to see for yourself.

      I see how motivating activities might be necessary to connect with students who have come to expect teachers to gain and hold their interest. But as an educator, I want to wean them from this particular expectation as quickly as possible. It is my hope that future posts will explain the ways I have tried to support learners in finding their own ways to engage.

  5. Engagement is critical for learners to actually get involved in a lesson, and build knowledge and skills. What it needs to be shifted though is the approach you mention - from external motivators to internal motivation. That takes time as students go through different stages of cognitive and emotional development. Also, real engagement does not look like "entertainment" most of the time - being engaged with content/knowledge takes effort and it involves thinking. Engaging activities need not be decorative but relevant, meaningful, and age-appropriate.

    1. Christina,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree completely. I'm not sure if you read the other posts in this series, but I try to suggest an approach that supports learners in identifying what engagement looks like and how to maintain it during learning.