This is my first blog in a while. Apologies for that; as well as struggling a bit with school stuff this year, I’ve been working on a couple of big projects, one of which you can read about here. If you’re interested in hearing about the other project when it launches (it’s pretty cool), make sure to subscribe to this site.

Early on in my career, “engagement” was everything – an inherent good and an ends to be pursued. In the name of engagement, I:

  • Played games in class
  • Made lessons a competition
  • Did poster lessons
  • Did computer research lessons
  • Set projects
  • Told lots of jokes
  • Put information all around the room for students to hunt down
  • Let students work in pairs or in groups
  • Used “real life examples” like the Avengers or Minecraft
  • Let students use their phones for research or flashcards
  • Did lessons outdoors
  • Used inquiry learning
  • Limited the amount of time I spent talking
  • Used videos rather than my own explanations
  • Asked students to do things like make a facebook page or write a tweet about the lesson
  • Used many different short and sharp activities within one lesson

A lot of that changed when I read Carl Hendrick’s blog about engagement. Drawing on the work of Graham Nuthall and Professor Rob Coe, Carl argues that in a lot of these activities students are engaged – they throw themselves in with relish and are fully caught up in the task. However, just because they are engaged, doesn’t mean they are learning.

Why is that? It seems like there are a couple of issues at play that are mutually reinforcing:

  1. There is an inverse relationship between “hard work” and “engagement”: students are highly engaged with things that aren’t challenging them or forcing them to work particularly hard.
  2. Engagement masks learning: when we observe such highly engaged students, we assume that they are learning when in fact they aren’t. This leads us to make poor classroom decisions around content coverage, checking for understanding and when to escalate the difficulty of a task.

For a long time, engagement was a dirty word to me. I didn’t want to hear it, because it represented the kind of teacher I used to be. And, though I don’t feel shame per se about past me, I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about all those students whose precious time I wasted. Being honest, sneering over its use was also a way of hiding from that reality – I had done these things in the classroom completely uncritically and was narcissistically overcompensating for that intellectual failure.

Additionally, I knew that my changed perspective was not universal: there were – and are – many teachers who are still doing the kinds of activity listed above. They do it sometimes:

  • by conscious choice (I think this is the best way to teach),
  • through the semi-coercion that plagues Teaching and Learning discourse in some schools (I am being observed and therefore need to do this)
  • simply because they have been trained in a certain way and is unaware that maybe there is a different way to do things.

As such, using the word “engagement” in any kind of positive light would just serve to encourage such practices, ones which I felt were useless at best and harmless at worst.

Despite the above, I think it is time that the word “engagement” were rehabilitated, because I think it is a useful word. In most simple definitions, the word refers to a kind of mental occupation, a thing you are cognitively busy with. In class, I want my students to be engaged, I want them to be busy and occupied, but I want them to be busy and occupied with a very specific “something”. The problem with the word engagement isn’t inherent to the word, the problem is that it has become a standalone word, when instead it should be part of a sentence. I mean by this that we should not say:

“The students were engaged”

We should say:

“The students were engaged in X”

Where X is some kind of cognitive activity.

For example, if a student is playing chess, we wouldn’t say:

“The student is engaged”

because it doesn’t tell us anything about what they are engaged in. So let’s try make it clearer:

“The student is engaged in playing chess”

This is better, but in a search for ever greater clarity, let’s push it further, and really dig into what the student might be engaged in:

“The student is engaged in trying to anticipate his opponent’s next move”

This formulation is far better because it tells us exactly what is happening. It gives us much richer information about performance and activity in a way that just saying the student is “engaged” or chess is “engaging” does not.

Let’s apply a similar example to a science classroom where students are researching specialised plant cells. The deputy head walks in and says:

“Well done, sir – the students were really engaged”

For us of course this isn’t specific enough, so we press the deputy head further, who says:

“The students were engaged in researching plant cells”

Again, I don’t think that really tells us everything we know. When we go and hover over a student’s shoulder, we see that they are indeed very cognitively busy, but what specifically are they busy in? We look closer and see that the student is copying information from a web page, pasting it onto a slide and manipulating the syntax of the sentence so that it is “in their own words.” As such, we have to say:

“The students were engaged in copying, pasting and rearranging”

We move to another student and see that they are laser focused on making sure that the diagrams they have copied from the internet are well aligned on the slides, which have a uniform colour scheme:

“The students were engaged in the aesthetics and design of their slides”

And here, finally, we reach the clincher. When a student is playing chess, I want them to be engaged in cognitive activities that directly relate to amateur chess, in this case anticipating their opponent. Similarly, when students are researching plant cells, I want them to be engaged in cognitive activities that relate to plant cells, not copying and pasting, not aesthetics and not slide design. In those cases they may be thinking – they may be cognitively active – but they are thinking about the wrong thing, and therefore won’t learn what I want them to learn.

Whatever activity I set students, I need to carefully plan what the students are going to be engaged in. If I set them a game or competition are they going to be engaged in the subject matter lying behind the game, or are they going to be engaged in trying to figure out the quickest way to win? How many times have students spent ages trying to convince me that the neighbouring team is cheating rather than just trying to get stuff right themselves? If I set a sheet of physics equation questions based on the Avengers, are the students going to be engaged in thinking hard about the equations or are they going to be engaged in talking to their friends about the Avengers? If I set a group activity are students going to be engaged in the complexity of the material, or in the erratic social dynamics of working with friends, enemies and everyone in between?

The word engagement shouldn’t be a dirty word any more – it’s a useful word. But it’s only useful if we keep pushing it, if we keep trying to make it more and more specific. It cannot be a standalone word – “the students are engaged full stop” – it has to be part of a sentence which specifies what students are engaged in. By forcing the word to fill that space in the sentence, we rehabilitate it;to become an incredibly useful tool when we start to map out what exactly it is we want students know, and how exactly we are going to direct them to think about it.

UPDATE: 4/8/21 1915

The forensically analytic Stuart Lock has argued on Twitter that the word is actually entirely redundant, and you could say things like “students were rearranging equations” rather than “students were engaged in rearranging equations.” I still think the second phrasing conveys a slightly different meaning, but he makes a really strong point and I encourage you to read his arguments.

Further reading:

As well as Carl’s blog and the sources he cites, you may find his and Jim Heal’s more recent article helpful, as well as Sarah Barker’s chapter in the researchED guide to explicit and direct instruction dealing with long term motivation. For specific reading on why some of the “engaging” activities listed above are best avoided, see competitions here and projects here. Matt’s recent blog here on boring lessons is a very good – and challenging – read.