“Engagement” is one of those things in education for which teachers often have different perspectives on how important it is. On one hand, there is the sense that without engagement, there is no meaningful learning happening (which is probably true). On the other hand, there are many who argue that “fun” is definitely engaging, but that having fun does not necessarily imply learning (also true). Ultimately I think that all educators want the same thing: to maximize learning.
The way I am currently seeing it, there are a variety of elements to engagement that will facilitate greater learning. I discuss each one below, starting from the aspects that I think have the highest impact on learning:
Meaningful and Relevant
Completing tasks that students see as meaningful and relevant will produce the greatest foundation for engagement. In this state, the learning becomes self-directed and inwardly motivated. Students are learning about something that they think will benefit them (beyond getting them a good grade), or that they are personally invested in. In the best case scenario, the task will also benefit others. Clay Shirky talks about participating in projects that are of communal value (useful to a community of peers – e.g. your class, or school) or of civic value (useful to society at large). From this perspective, teachers can ask themselves, “is the world (or our city/school/class) a better place from the investment of time that my students put into this assignment?”
The idea of making lessons and assignments purposeful has a strong relationship to being meaningful and relevant. But even if we scale back the picture a little bit (after all, not every lesson or assignment can change the world), it is still very useful to focus on how what you are doing right now relates to what students will be doing in the future. In other words, do students understand how this lesson/activity/discussion/quiz/work period is part of the larger “roadmap” of the unit and course? If not, they are likely to see their investment of time as busy-work. I think it is often the case that, though the teacher has a clear understanding of the big picture, they often fail to articulate the process well enough for students to become invested. Better yet, can your students help you create the roadmap?
Long ago, Vygotsky brought clarity to the idea that learning is a social experience, steeped in cultural and institutional contexts. Since then, the amazing research that has been done on Cooperative Learning reinforces the idea that we learn better when we talk and interact with others. In my experience, if you want engagement, you have to learn how to effectively implement cooperative learning strategies (which takes time and practice – a journey I am actively on). When students have meaningful conversations with each other, they will be engaged, and they will be learning.
If nothing else, try to engage students with fun. “Fun” does not have to mean playing games, though “gamification in education” is probably something worth giving some attention to, as it goes far beyond creating “Jeopardy review” games. Fun can also mean telling stories, drawing/animating, building things (or breaking things), moving around, acting out, and exercising creativity in general. As teachers we all know there is content that just needs to be covered because it is important to the broader body of knowledge in a subject. If you can’t find a way to make the content meaningful, relevant, purposeful, or social … at least try to make it fun.
Ultimately, engaging classrooms are not built on only one of the elements above, but incorporate many (or all) of them at different times and to different levels of use. It’s also important to remember that students understand that not every lesson, activity, or assignment is going to be unbelievably engaging. The problem is when your default state is, “I know it’s boring, but you have to do it anyway.” Students will let you get away with that to some degree, but too much of it and they will turn their brains off at the door … so you can throw the learning out the window!
Image credit: mikhoohkim