A Discussion on Engagement
11th December 2021
Tim Taylor & Zoe Enser
- Introduction – The problem with calling engagement a poor proxy for learning
The topic of whether engagement is a useful term and desirable aim has been much discussed in education. This debate has flared up again recently around Professor Robert Coe’s statement ‘engagement’ is a ‘poor proxy for learning’. Here Tim Taylor and Zoe Enser discuss the issue.
The problem with the statement ‘engagement is a poor proxy for learning’ is the damage it does to the way we think about student engagement. Without intending to, this statement turns the notion of engagement into a toxic idea like learning-styles, VAK, brain-gym, and other unhelpful things which are now dismissed and consigned to the dustbin of history. Engagement, however, is not a fallacy but an important part of effective learning and we do ourselves great damage by ignoring it.
As you know this statement originated with Prof. Coe in his report ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ . Back then the concern was with the foregrounding of engagement over learning. I acknowledge this was a real problem and one, I’m embarrassed to say, I wasn’t entirely immune from. However, things have moved on in recent times and although I’m not suggesting the problem has entirely gone away it has become much less of an issue since Ofsted stopped judging lessons on how busy the students are during a twenty-minute visit.
Engagement is a vital component of the learning process, essential to students acquisition and understanding of content, but over recent years it has been pushed to the margins, becoming a Cinderella subject, rarely discussed and under-researched.
While not without its dangers, engaging students in learning is far better than disengaging them from learning. This seems obvious and a statement I’m sure we agree on. I am, therefore, going to start by suggesting some common ground which I believe we share:
- When planning a lesson, learning should be prioritised first and foremost. A lesson without a clear idea of what we want the students to learn is a poor experience and a waste of their time. However busy, motivated, and engaged they are.
- Not everything worth knowing is intrinsically interesting to everyone, and some things are worth studying even if they are boring.
- Students need to develop resilience and the capacity to cope with boredom and hard work.
- Learning requires thinking hard. Challenge, perseverance, struggling with difficult ideas, are all good things and we shouldn’t protect students from these aspects of education, we should protect them into them.
I don’t know if you agree?
Now, some possible points of contention:
- Teachers should always think about how to engage their students in the learning – first by planning the learning, then by thinking about what might be interesting to the students, finally by thinking about how to engage them, what resources, strategies, and techniques to use to grab their attention and interest them in the content.
- Lessons should be evaluated on what the students’ learned, not on how engaged they were. However, if they weren’t engaged and didn’t learn much, what could have been done to engage them more?
- Engagement is a core aspect of the learning process, either engagement in the content through its intrinsic quality to engage, or through the strategies and techniques used by the teacher, or because of the students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. The third kind of engagement is the ultimate goal and should be the subject of extensive discussion and research.
- There are many existing strategies used by teachers, now and in the past, which represent a rich archive of resources, wisdom, and knowledge waiting to be explored and more widely shared with the community.
I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Lastly, some proposals:
- We stop arguing about engagement being a poor proxy for learning and start discussing how we can develop better strategies for engaging students in learning.
- As a profession we start researching more thoroughly what strategies, techniques, and resources work. And share these more widely.
- We rigorously evaluate these strategies, techniques, and resources by judging their quality on how they engage students in learning, not on how ‘entertaining’ they are.
- We start a professional discourse on what we mean by engagement, what engagement-for-learning looks like, what are its qualities, and distinguishing features. (I’m pretty sure curiosity and tension are going to be part of the answer).
I’m going to stop at this point and let you answer. I don’t expect you to agree with everything I’ve said, but let’s start here and see where we go next. I look forward to reading your reply.
2. Down the Engagement Rabbit Hole
As anticipated, there is of course much here I agree with. Learning should be the central focus of all we do, and as you quite rightly say, some things which are of great value may be a bit boring to learn or might not excite all of our learners who are after all a diverse bunch. We need to get buy-in and I agree we spend too much time arguing about some of the terminology.
However, in this case, the word engagement, rightly or wrongly, took teachers down a rabbit hole for a number of years. Often became increasingly about ‘edutainment’. Engaging pupils in the classroom, showing they were seemingly enjoying increasingly bizarre activities as a way to show learning was happening became a key focus in lesson observations. In one instance I watched an Ofsted endorsed video of a ‘good’ lesson, which largely seemed to involve a variety of hats and props hidden beneath the table in a geography lesson. This was use to exemplify good learning, but whatever way I looked at it, I wasn’t really sure where the geography in the lesson was hiding, and what learning was happening to make it good. Admittedly this was only a snapshot of the lesson, something I am never keen to take the evidence of a whole, but without seeing outcomes of the episode, myself and other observers, were left thinking the key measurement here was the hats and the props and the pupils talking about them, as opposed to any deeper learning taking place.
Around the same time as this was held up as an example of something we should aspire to as a school, we had the idea of ‘fascinator’ starters. The use of music or images to introduce pupils to the lesson, which were not always necessarily about the learning again. Ten minutes of a lesson could be spent on answering a random ‘philosophical’ question but not necessarily on getting on with something which was going to enhance their understanding in English, or maths or science.
Engagement, then for us Tim, had become a measuring stick by which we were supposed to be able to judge the invisible processes pupils were going through in the classroom and for me that simply didn’t cut it.
Therefore, shifting the conversation away from one around Engagement, became an important step for me and one which returned us to the core of what we needed to do.
Since exploring the idea of engagement as a poor proxy for learning the conversations has shifted towards the concept of motivation, attention and how we can make aspects of the learning visible so we can ensure students are on track.
Questions are increasingly focused on how can we motivate pupils to attend to the most valuable information? How can we motivate them to want to be involved in the learning process, ask questions about it, and think metacognitively around it? How can we help them to develop self-regulation and empower them to become more independent in the learning and take it off in directions that interest them? How can we check in along the way with a variety of formative assessment practices, including good questioning and generative activities to support them to reach that point and ensure learning is taking place? All of that still very much involves the learner wanting to interact with the learning materials and make progress, despite dare I say it, sometimes being potentially a bit boring.
Of course, poor proxies don’t just have to be around engagement though. It can be things like the amount of written work, which also may or may not indicate learning has happened. It might be about the direction they were facing or whether they were silent which was being used to measure engagement too. Participation ratios, as discussed by Doug Lemov, were also a bit of a sticking point for me, as again we might see lots of questions being answered but if the questions weren’t the right ones to move pupils on, or if nothing happened following this, then it still didn’t really mean it was helping the learning to happen. There needs to be deeper thinking around those questions we ask. I have always been much more interested in ‘think ratio’ but that returns me again to the issues with never being able to know exactly what is going on inside a learner’s brain at every moment.
That’s why I like the reminder from Professor Coe that engagement is a poor proxy. It immediately shifts our gaze away from the activity and back to the learning. As with Graham Nuthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners it reminds us to think harder about what the purpose of the activities we deploy is and if what pupils are taking away is enough. Whilst students may well enjoy the lesson, if our goal is to get them to be able to analyse a passage from Shakespeare then we might not have hit that objective if what we got them to do was create a model of the Globe Theatre. And far too often in the past students were walking out of lessons unable to do that very thing which sat at the heart of the lesson. And that is not a comfortable thing for me to admit. But admit it I do.
Talking about motivation, self-regulation and formative assessment is what matters most to me. That doesn’t sound as sexy as engagement though. It doesn’t sound like a worthy aim if we say ‘we are going to do this and perhaps you will find it a bit hard or a bit boring sometimes, but I am going to remind you why it matters you work on this and then we will celebrate the success when we get there’. What I hope though, is by unpicking what this means we avoid statements around engagement which talking about ‘a buzz’, ‘the x-factor’ and ‘you will be able to see it when it happens’ type of comments around learning. Our subjects are amazing, exciting, and interesting. Learning and knowing more about them is a goal in itself. If we get tied up in thinking engagement is about something other than that, then I am afraid it is likely our students will not make the progress we want them to make.
I do know that getting buy-in from students and encouraging them to focus on the learning is important though. I just won’t do it with hats, or coloured paper or making a diorama.
Engagement isn’t a dirty word then for me Tim. It just isn’t an especially useful one.
3. Student Engagement: A Vital Element
I’m glad we agree on so much! All the terrible lesson activities you describe are exactly the kinds of things that bring me out in hives. And we all have horror stories about Ofsted meddling with pedagogy and telling us what represents ‘best practice’. I also understand your desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past and for us all to learn from the failures of edutainment that certainly infected our profession in the early 2000s. However, times move on, lessons have been learned, and it is time now for reappraisal and recalibration.
While many of the reforms of teaching and curriculum instigated over the last ten years have had positive effects – not least the emphasis on what the students are actually learning – they have not solved all the problems of education and have, however unintentionally, ignored some of the more significant areas of pedagogical concern. Most significantly, student engagement.
As I mentioned in my first missive, the study of student engagement has become something of a Cinderella subject – largely ignored and in some quarters very much derided. Even talking about it can provoke scorn and a rolling eye emoji of disdain. Yet, engaging students in learning is about as fundamental a teaching skill as there is. We can spend as much time as we like planning lessons, designing curriculum, and practicing our ‘delivery’ but if the young people in the room don’t engage with the content, we are all wasting our time.
Engagement is an active process of investing in something that matters to us. Passive learning done ‘to us’ can never be as effective as learning that comes about through active and enthusiastic participation. I’m not sure anyone would disagree with this, yet we’ve largely stopped talking about how we can engage students in learning, what methods might work, what strategies might we develop, what lessons might we learn from the past. This is a misstep, brought about by dismissing the importance of engagement, and one we need to fix and soon.
It is useful to look at the etymology of the verb ‘engage’: it comes from the French engagier, that is to bind or pledge. It is, in other words, an investment of time and attention. If I’m engaged in a book or a film or a conversation, I’m making an investment, a pledge of my time and mental faculties to the medium or event. The less I invest, the less of my time and faculties I give to the process. It is not simply a matter of being motivated, although that is certainly part of the process, it is about a commitment, a conscious and a willing decision to participate. Agency, choice, free-will are all important aspects here – a horse brought to water will not always drink – therefore we need to keep these things in mind. Plan for them and create opportunities for them to exist in the classroom. How we do this, whilst maintaining intellectual rigor and a focus on the content of the lesson, is a worthy and important subject of study.
It is not enough, forgive me, to dismiss this process as ‘not especially useful’, it is as fundamental to good teaching as clear explanations and effective behaviour management. A teacher who doesn’t think about how to engage their students’ minds in the content of the lesson is merely hoping it will happen. They might get away with it if the content is interesting or the students are highly motivated, but it is likely to be suboptimal if the students are bored or invested in other things. We’ve all taught lessons where it is obvious the students’ minds are elsewhere – they might be in the room, but really, they are here in name only. Some children get good at this, looking switched on, paying attention, while their minds have gone to another place. Whilst others never learn the trick and end up getting into trouble for being disruptive. This is a big problem in schools: low level disruption caused often by inattention and boredom. Surely, we should be researching ways to avoid this, ways to grab students’ interests and hold their attention. This is what I’m asking for.
One line of inquiry is in the kinds of things that switch students from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. For some students this might be learning itself or a plan to do well in exams and go to university. For others, these things might not be important. Or, and this is especially true in primary education, too far away to be urgent. Learning for its own sake might not be much of a turn on, especially if it is difficult. So, what can we do to make learning worthwhile? The answer in the early 2000s was to make it fun – kids like fun, the argument went, so if we make learning fun they’ll want to do it. This kind of thinking was (as we have discussed) badly flawed, learning is not about having fun (that can be a major distraction) learning is about commitment – a pledge – and it is hard work, sometimes boring. The question we should have asked is what can we do to make learning meaningful, something students want to engage with, something they want to invest their time and energy in? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves now. And it’s a question about engagement.
4. Grafting for Success
Once again there is much I agree with here. The idea of ‘fun’ certainly took a wrong turn for us, as we desperately tried to hide the learning and ‘trick’ students into participating in an array of activities which only bore a fleeting resemblance to the topic in hand. It was like we had become embarrassed by the idea of learning as inherently fun.
Where I do disagree though is that this is a thing of the past. There is still a significant misunderstanding which exists around how we can measure learning and there are still plenty of people who think it can be measured in that ‘je ne sais quoi’ often described as a buzz or sense of a thrill.
You are also right in highlighting the need for students to understand the intrinsic value of what they are doing, but again I think engagement takes us back down a rabbit hole. To really value it they need to see the big picture. I don’t mean exam results, although we can’t make that the elephant in the room when it comes to making choices for their future, but understanding the big picture of what learning is for. It helps to shape us, provide opportunities, gives us the tools to challenge and question and empowers us to make some significant changes to our lives. Every subject contributes to that. It is about growing as an individual, and being able to interact with some of the biggest conversations within our society. Everyone who would be reading this will have benefited from that.
However, value also comes from seeing how the different elements of what we are learning interconnect. Knowing how this step builds on the last one and leads to the next, will allow students to reflect on their own progress and give them the tools to do so. We also need to show that we value the learning that is taking place and that comes back to having deep conversation about the purpose of the process and valuing the outcomes students achieve.
To motivate students further so they want to participate in their education, students also need to understand the cost and have realistic expectations of what that means. Often when we have wrapped things up in engagement we have sent the message it is about task completion or participation in activities which have not really been explained beyond the idea of ‘fun’. As you said before, learning is hard and we shouldn’t shy away from that. Sometimes as experts who have learnt to be effective learners we forget to share with students what the hard graft means as they see us doing things effortlessly. That means they expectations are unrealistic about how to get better and either it is something which people can inherently do, or it is something which is so far out of their reach they may as well never bother. Either way it does nothing to motivate them to want to learn.
I am reminded of one exceptional student in my last school who achieved fantastic results. His peers thought that he was just ‘clever’, able to do all of the things which they simply couldn’t begin to achieve. What they didn’t see was that this student went home every night and studied. Studied really hard. He was reading around most of his GCSE topics, looking at A Level materials to try and deepen his understanding. He self-tested, summarised, explained, practised and practised some more. This wasn’t something he was advertising to anyone other than his teachers.
We need to worry less about measuring proxies like ‘engagement’ and more about making the learning transparent, making it clear why it is valuable, and holding dear any opportunity to develop a deep appreciation of the learning process. We need to communicate that in our interactions with every student, every parent and everyone we come into contact when we talk about schools. It isn’t about the bells and whistles (and sadly some still think it is). It is about hard-work and perseverance most of the time though.
Thanks again for the discussion,
5. Intrinsic Motivation
I agree planning for interconnectivity, sharing the big picture with students, and talking about the importance of hard-work and resilience are all key to supporting students to become effective and knowledgeable learners. Where we differ, however, is in the role engagement plays in this process.
Without engagement we can design the most perfect curriculum imaginable, create walkthrus illustrating the academic pathways in meticulous detail, and talk with great passion and belief about our own experiences and the importance of grit and graft, but unless our students engage with the process all this will count for nothing. Ironically, a poor proxy for learning.
As I’ve said elsewhere, this discussion is not about either/or, but about both/and. Engagement is not a distraction from learning, it is a fundamental element both to the successful communication of content and to the development of intrinsic motivation so our students become, and continue to be, effective and invested learners. Everything we have discussed matters: both the big picture and engagement with the subject; both grit and determination and a personal investment in the process; both understanding the learning and being excited about the context. Separating these elements out and saying one side is more important than the other is like arguing flour is more important than eggs when making a cake – both are fundamental and rely on the other.
This was the mistake made in the past, to foreground engagement – the fizz – without focusing on the content. We agree on this, and it may still be a problem in some quarters, I’m not going to argue with you, but then so is boredom. Too many young people are bored of school – disappointed, dispirited, and, in too many cases, disappeared – should we make learning ‘fun’ to keep them entertained? No, of course not. But then neither should we ignore the fact that a disengaged mind is unlikely to learn as effectively as an engaged one. Over the past few years we have repeated the same mistake of the past, prioritising one element above the other, this time content over engagement, and we need to remember that both matter, both are fundamental, and both need to be given the time and attention they need for research and development. One without the other makes a horrible cake.
One of the key questions for me is about how to generate intrinsic motivation. It is not something we can ‘deliver’ to our students (a horrible metaphor) but something by definition that must come from inside them, something they have to generate and maintain for themselves, something they own and cherish. We’ve all seen the effects of intrinsic motivation on children (you talk about an example in your last blog) and many of us have experienced it ourselves. Personally I’m terrible if I have to do something I’m not engaged with, something I can’t see the point in, or worse, something I can see the point in but don’t want to do. Something like that becomes a chore, a thing I have to force myself to do for a higher goal, but I don’t like it and I want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. School was like that for me, I was a terrible student, I failed the 11+ and dragged myself through secondary school, barely paying attention and ending up with next to no qualifications. This was 1981 and I spent the next five years unemployed, drifting around aimlessly. Finally, more out of boredom than anything else, I went to the town library and started to read books. I found I liked them and enjoyed learning – something no one at school ever mentioned could be fun – and then I went to college and onto university. The motivation I generated was my own, it didn’t come from outside, I knew about the importance of getting a good education, but I didn’t care – at least not enough to work for it – so I drifted at school, I was really there in name only.
This experience stayed with me when I started teaching and even today when I’m in a class I identify most with the children who look bored and disengaged. “That’s me”, I think, “that’s what I was like at school.” At such times I want to do everything I can to grab their attention, make the learning meaningful and interesting, get them to look up and join in. If I don’t, I’ve failed them. I might have planned the greatest lesson ever, interlinked to a wider curriculum, full of powerful knowledge and cultural capital, but if the students don’t engage with the content, what was the point? If we, meaning the education community, dismiss this process and don’t work on finding effective methods for engaging all students, then what are we doing, what is our purpose, what are we motivated by?
Generating an intrinsic motivation in our students, a love of learning, a commitment, a pledge, is what education is about. Because once students become intrinsically motivated, invested in the project of their own learning, then they become independent, resilient, and self-sufficient people able to do whatever they want with their lives.