Over the years, I have seen engagement take a variety of forms. When I first began teaching, I was an Associate Lecturer and was therefore handed whatever bits and pieces the College I worked in at the time couldn’t get covered by other members of staff – NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) groups on employability courses, Functional Skills classes at odd times of the day or week (Saturday mornings anyone?) and on other sites. With the majority of these groups, engagement was the main purpose- re-engaging them in education, re-engaging them with English, maths and ICT, re-engaging them with learning in general (making the assumption that there had been a time when they were engaged to begin with). More often than not, engagement was about distracting these young people from the major life challenges they faced, moving them away from previous failures in education and preventing them from hurting one another (trust and relationships weren’t generally their strong suit).
Since this time, I’ve placed a high value on ‘engagement’ and its foundation is almost certainly found in positive relationships. I’ve written before about ‘The Best Teachers I Know‘. These are teachers who show genuine care for their students in the relationships they have with them; earning trust. This genuine care is apparent in their high expectations, feedback, praise and valuing of their contribution to learning.
Whilst I believe the foundation to engagement lies in relationships, there are a number of other aspects that I feel make a significant contribution and so I was compelled to discover exactly what was meant by the act of ‘engagement’.
As an English teacher, I headed to the first place I felt would be able to help me with this week’s blog for the ‘Engage for progress’ week – the dictionary.
The first definition I found was from Merriam Webster online and it stated that to engage would be ‘to hold the attention of‘. This was an unsatisfactory definition for me. There are projects I engage with that still lose my attention at times. This can be because they’re a challenge and I’m unsure how to proceed- I feel the fear. It can be because life throws competing priorities my way and I find myself in the midst of another project. Just because my attention is elsewhere, it’s not to say that these projects don’t engage me.
So, when faced with an answer I didn’t like, I searched for one I did and this was to be found in the Cambridge Dictionary online–
‘to interest someone in something and keep them thinking about it’
Surely this is the kind of engagement we want as educators? The kind of engagement that leaves students thinking about a lesson long after it has ended.
The beginning of a lesson can certainly trigger engagement-
- A warm welcome that makes students feel as though the environment they have entered is one that offers a safe and secure learning experience
- A clear routine that helps them to enter a focussed state of mind.
- A question to raise curiosity or a short problem to solve as soon as students enter the learning space (explore a range of starter activities here)
Beyond the very beginning of a lesson though, what kind of learning experiences lead to a longer lasting engagement that stretches beyond their timetabled learning time?
The following patterns about engagement have emerged as a result of speaking to colleagues this week, reflecting on the best teachers I’ve seen, and considering learning I’ve chosen to engage in for myself. Engagement results from the following-
- Teachers with strong subject knowledge
- Teachers with passion for their subject
- Problem solving activities and well-pitched challenge
The best ‘teacher’ I can think of that embodies the first two of these is David Attenborough. He never ceases to engage me in a subject I have little natural affinity with.
In addition to his subject knowledge and passion, Attenborough has an authentic warmth, sense of humour and joy that certainly provides an entertaining edge.
It is often easy for us to be drawn towards the ‘fun’ aspect of engagement but this should never come first. In setting out to engage our students with their learning, fun may be the product of what they engage with and how rather than an end in itself.
Problem solving and well-pitched challenge
When I considered the learning in my life that has engaged me the most, it has always hooked me into a ‘state of flow’.
Flow is about finding the perfect balance of challenge in line with what the students abilities are so that you can work them away from anxious and stressed and towards a high level of control and focus.
So how do we get students into a state of flow?
‘The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be, like if you are playing tennis, you know where you want the ball to go, if you are playing a musical instrument you know what notes you want to play, every millisecond, almost. And you get feedback to what you’re doing. That is, if you’re playing music, you can hear whether what you are trying to do is coming out right or in tennis you see where the ball goes and so on. So there’s concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done, that is, challenges and skills are pretty much in balance.
When these characteristics are present a person wants to do whatever made him or her feel like this, it becomes almost addictive and you’re trying to repeat that feeling and that seems to explain why people are willing to do things for no good reason — there is no money, no recognition — just because this experience is so rewarding and that’s the flow experience.’ (Csikszentmihalyi, M, 2008)
A useful model for challenge and pitching it right is ‘The Learning Pit’ from James Nottingham.
For further practical ideas about engagement and its components then the writers of ‘Outstanding Teaching – Engaging Learners’ may have some answers in their model for ‘outstanding’ teaching-
They have a page filled with 4×4 grids on a variety of aspects of Teaching & Learning. here’s a sample of their version for lesson starts-
I began this blog writing about the reasons ‘engagement’ was important in my early career. Working in Further Education sits squarely in the ‘second chance education’ bracket and whilst the aim of getting students to be enthused about our subject long after the lesson is over is a worthy one; there is a social and personal perspective at play in their education with us too – How are we engaging students in developing connections with their peers and others? How are we working on their personal development so that they are able to progress and make a positive economic contribution to society? (Savelsberg, H et. al. 2017) ‘to interest someone in something and keep them thinking about it’ must stretch far beyond the realms of the subject content of their BTEC qualification. Enrich their time at College with social experiences, community contributions, and employer-led projects and we might be closer to engagement than any dictionary definition might get us.
Csikszentmihalyi, M (2008), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, LONDON: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Savelsberg, H et. al. (2017) ‘Second chance education: barriers, supports and engagement strategies’ in Australian Journal of Adult Learning, Vol. 57, Number 1