Engagement, Opinion, Teaching

What Leads to Engagement?

In my last post I noted that student learning depends upon intellectual engagement and that a teacher’s task was to evoke that engagement.  This begs the question of what it is that causes students to be engaged.

By this I mean not what a teacher does towards this end—that is the subject of my next blog—but rather what thoughts and feelings within the student lead to engagement in learning.  How to get there is, of course, an important question, but first we need to clear about what response we aim to create within the student that will result in engagement.

The big message from the CEA research on the topic of engagement (What Did You Do In School Today? or WDYIST and the various subsequent reports) is that student engagement depends upon their perception of meaning.  The first report on this research, in 2009, comments that:

the work students undertake also needs to be relevant, meaningful and authentic—in other words, it needs to be worthy of their time and attention. Too frequently, the work students are asked to do does not allow them to use their minds well or to experience the life and vitality of real, intellectually rigorous work.  Once fragmented, school work loses its intrinsic, disciplinary and intellectual meaning. In this form, the work cannot have any meaning or value to students beyond the achievement of high marks.  (p. 34)

When students find what they are learning to be “worthy of their time” they are much more likely to have a genuine intellectual and emotional commitment to the process.  Thus, the first aspect of student response that is liable to lead to engagement is Connection—the sense that the questions being explored and the understandings being developed are relevant and meaningful for them.  Curiosity is useful, but not sufficient; without a sense that the topic is also significant, curiosity wanes quickly.  This, of course, is entirely a matter of personal perception.  The teacher can, and should, present material in ways that invite students to appreciate its relevance, but you can’t argue them into that perception.

Connection is a good, probably necessary, beginning but it is not sufficient.  In addition, engagement requires the student to have the perception of Self-Efficacy–the belief that s/he is capable of success in the tasks at hand.  This doesn’t mean it has to be easy, just that it has to be within potential reach.  In fact, the WDYDIST research suggests that challenging tasks are more engaging, but the level of challenge must be consistent with the level of skill.  Students should as often as possible be asked to work at the limits of their ability, where they are not yet quite capable of independent work but require some guidance and assistance (aka scaffolding) and yet not frustrated by inability.  If they have the sense that what they are asked to do is meaningful and, with effort and support, achievable, students are more likely to find it engaging.

The potential for engagement increases further if students have the perception of Agency—the sense that they can exercise some control over their learning and thus are able to shape it to their interests to at least a reasonable degree.  This does not mean that they can simply do what they like and learn what they wish—there is, after all, a curriculum—but within the scope of the learning task and consistent with its design, students should have as much control as is practically possible over how to focus their efforts and what means to use in completing the task.

The experienced curriculum is never the same as the intended curriculum, and there is always more going on in student’s minds than we know—which can be good or bad.  When students can influence the focus and the means of their learning, this inescapable  variation in student experience can serve to increase alignment with individual interests, needs and abilities.  It becomes a means of “personalization” that deepens engagement and thus enriches learning.

If students have the perception of Connection to a learning task, Self-Efficacy in relation to it successful completion, and Agency in regards to how it is conducted there is a good likelihood that they will choose to engage with it in a genuinely committed manner rather than merely completing it to invite praise and/or avoid criticism from the teacher.

Students can motivated externally through various combinations of carrots and sticks but such a behaviourist approach to the teacher-student relationship does not lead to engagement, only compliance at best.  Engagement must be internally motivated, and that depends upon student perceptions that ignite the desire to learn and the willingness to undertake the struggle that learning requires.  In the end, teachers cannot engage students, they must engage themselves, but the teacher is responsible for creating the conditions under which this is liable to occur.

In my next blog, I will consider the expertise that teachers bring to bear in order to evoke these generative perceptions in their students.

Previous Blog – What is Good Teaching?

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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