Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

I’ve long thought that one of the weakest proxy indicators of effective learning is engagement, and yet it’s a term persistently used by school leaders (and some researchers) as one of the most important measures of quality. In fact many of the things we’ve traditionally associated with effective teachers may not be indicative of students actually learning anything at all.

At the #ascl2015 conference last Friday, the always engaging Professor Rob Coe gave a talk entitled ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’ and reiterated this claim. Take the following slide – How many ‘outstanding’ lessons have been awarded so based on this checklist?

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 21.15.21

Prof. Rob Coe From Evidence to Great Teaching ASCL 20 Mar 2015

Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?

This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:

“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24

Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.” Furthermore, teachers are more than happy to sanction that kind of stuff in the name of fulfilling that all important ‘engagement’ proxy indicator so prevalent in lesson observation forms.

The other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:

“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35

Motivation and engagement are vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

Learning is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?

Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex conglomerate of factors that traditional lesson observations have little hope of finding in a 20 min drive-by.

This is where a more robust climate of research and reflective practice can inform judgements. It’s true that more time for teachers to be critically reflective will improve judgements but we also need to be more explicit in precisely what it is we are looking for and accept that often the most apparent classroom element may also be the most misleading.

Slides: Prof. Rob Coe:  From Evidence to Great Teaching ASCL 20 Mar 2015

Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press

29 comments

  1. chrismwparsons

    Thanks for this Carl – what I’ve called the ‘Cult of Engagement’ is one of my most burning frustrations. Apart from being a misleading proxy for learning, I also strongly believe that our attempts to ensure that our pupils are *engaged* in ‘activity’ can also have a pernicious long term effect on them..

    I’ve written about how we could categorise different methods of engaging pupils recently in a triple post “Beyond the Cult of Engagement” – I’d be fascinated to know your take on it 🙂

    https://steppingbackalittle.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/beyond-the-cult-of-engagement-part-1-the-problem/

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  4. chemistrypoet

    The most telling part of this excellent blogpost, is that we currently appear to have very little idea of what constitutes effective learning. Consequently, we can’t measure it. And, so, we should stop trying to….until we actually know (really know) what we are looking for. Imagine the effect on teachers and schools if this knowledge was actually acted on.

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  10. Steve Finnell

    SELECTIVE “FAITH ONLY” SALVATION BY STEVE FINNELL

    FAITH ONLY BELIEVERS IN CHRIST DENY THAT THE NEW COVENANT PLAN OF SALVATION WAS NOT IN EFFECT UNTIL AFTER THE DEATH, BURIAL, AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS. IN ORDER TO BE SAVED WITHOUT BEING BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF THEIR SINS,THEY PROCLAIM THAT THEY CAN BE SAVED LIKE THE THIEF ON THE CROSS. (LUKE 23:39-43)
    IF MEN TODAY CAN BE SAVED LIKE, THE THIEF ON THE CROSS, THEN WHY CAN THEY NOT BE SAVED LIKE, THE RICH YOUNG RULER?

    LUKE 18:18-22 A RULER QUESTIONED HIM, SAYING, “GOOD TEACHER, WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” 19 JESUS SAID TO HIM, “WHY DO YOU CALL ME GOOD? NO ONE IS GOOD EXCEPT GOD ALONE. 20 YOU KNOW THE COMMANDMENTS, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’ 21 AND HE SAID, “ALL THESE THINGS I HAVE KEPT FROM MY YOUTH.” 22 WHEN JESUS HEARD THIS, HE SAID TO HIM, “ONE THING YOU STILL LACK; SELL ALL THAT YOU POSSESS AND DISTRIBUTE IT TO THE POOR, AND YOU SHALL HAVE TREASURE IN HEAVEN; COME AND FOLLOW ME.”

    WHAT WAS THE RICH MAN’S PLAN OF SALVATION?

    The rich man’s question was what must I do to inherit eternal life?

    1. Do not commit adultery.
    2. Do not murder.
    3. Do not steal.
    4. Do not bear false witness.
    5. Honor your father and mother.
    6. Sell all your possessions and distribute them to the poor.

    Jesus said do this and you shall have treasure in heaven.

    Can men today be saved by, the rich man’s plan of salvation? OF COURSE NOT!

    Can men today be saved by, the thief on the cross plan of salvation? OF COURSE NOT!

    The apostle Peter preached the first gospel sermon under the New Covenant on the Day of Pentecost.

    THE NEW COVENANT PLANT OF SALVATION
    1. FAITH: John 3:16
    2. REPENTANCE: Acts 2:38
    3. CONFESSION Romans 10:9-10
    4. WATER BAPTISM: Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27, Romans 6:1-7, Colossians 2:12-13.

    (All Scripture quotes from: NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)
    .
    Posted by Steve Finnell at 2:55 AM No comments:
    Email This
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    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

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  11. Andrew Weiler

    The issue is HOW you define engagement. With a lay definition of it, I may agree with you. However with a more careful look at what engagement means ( not interesting, for eg !) I think it provides a great marker we need to look at more carefully.
    Can you imagine ever learning to drive, to dance or any other skill without being fully engaged? I suspect not.
    The issue is that in most formal learning environments that is not the kind of experience teachers provide. No wonder so many people struggle to learn. Without engagement, the only learning device left to us is memorisation, a very poor way of learning most things, especially skills.

    I have had a closer look at the place of engagement at http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/engagement-the-missing-key/

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