Course on Student Engagement

Posted on September 18, 2011. Filed under: thinking aloud |

I have been working on an online course on student engagement for the open-source learning site P2PU. The content of the course keeps exploding as I realize how far-reaching and ultimately all-encompassing the topic of engagement is to education.  This process has led to some interesting conversations in my head.

Who is responsible for student engagement? I find myself thinking about where engagement and teaching differ.  I mean, if we are not engaging students, can we even call it teaching?  I know many people believe that the responsibility for learning lands on the learner, but I still wonder at the role of the teacher and what a teacher can influence that would lead to better student engagement.  I am sure I think about this incessantly because I am in elementary education, where blaming the 5 year old for not taking responsibility for their learning, seems, well, ridiculous.

So, what is an educator’s responsibility in regards to engagement? And what, if anything, can we say is the learner’s responsibility? This is a bigger question that goes beyond my course and speaks to everything from the history of education to cultural norms about schooling. As an avid learner, I believe people can and should seek out what they want to learn and remain continuously active in the process.  I believe that is the most powerful form of learning. On the other hand, as an elementary educator and a person who is in this profession because she wants to serve those with less opportunity, how can I abandon my students to their own devices when they have not had the opportunity to develop those devices?  Is that what a teacher does?

Another consideration that haunts me as I work on this course is relationship.  Research grows regarding the importance of relationship in the learning environment.  This makes sense to me as I look back on teachers that had influence over me as well as my own experiences as a teacher.  I even remember poorly-skilled teachers who, because they built relationships, were able to move students along a strong trajectory of learning. Relationship is not the same as engagement, and yet it seems foundational to engagement and learning. It is as if a learner shuts down in an environment where they do not feel wanted, appreciated, and welcomed.  Shutting down would be the opposite of engagement, so relationship is essential to engagement. Wow, but there is not enough room in a 6 week course to fully explore relationship in the learning environment. Relationship is most definitely a rich and complicated topic of its own. So I find I will have to merely touch on it as an element to consider within engagement and move along. Frustrating.

I am also finding myself examining this idea of how instructional design leads to different sorts of engagement strategies.  I am in a district and school where direct instruction has become the norm.  For a standards-based environment, direct instruction is the most efficient way to help children learn.  In an educational world measured by standards-based testing it is a necessity. Engagement in a direct-instruction, standards-based environment is all about attention and participation. The teacher has chosen the learning path (through the standards) and therefore the job of the teacher is to move the students along a path by getting and keeping student attention through the participation of all students. In a different environment, like project-based instruction (I have had the opportunity to teach in other sorts of environments), the instructional design would be fluid and students would have more say in direction.  In this environment engagement becomes about developing student skills with planning, asking engaging sorts of questions, and self-monitoring. Participation takes a back seat to other engagement considerations. So when we discuss engagement in education, we are really matching apples to oranges if we do not consider the instructional design in our thinking.

Finally, what about this big idea of motivation?  Could we have more opposing opinions on a single topic? Classroom management, teacher training, sheer common sense tell us we need to use bells and whistles, rewards and consequences, lots of praise, and a treasure box filled with prizes to keep students on task and moving ahead.  On the other hand, behavioral research, psychologists, and others are begging teachers to stop and reconsider the importance of intrinsic motivation.  Furthermore, they are pointing at extrinsic bells and whistles as the teaching strategy that undermines intrinsic  motivation. What does a teacher do with that?  How do we move ahead in a classroom of 25-45 students without the treasure box?  Talk about the road less traveled.

So there it is, a line-up of questions raised by considering the phrase “student engagement.”  I have realized that in all my years of teaching I have learned the tip of the iceberg on engagement, and I look forward to learning much more as I work with participants in the P2PU course.


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