Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 1 – The Problem

This blog post is split into three. In this first one, I’m going to lay out what I believe to be wrong with much of the use of the concept of “engagement” in current schooling. In the second one I will present a speculative guiding hierarchy for judging the value of its different guises, and in the final one, I will give a closer look at the highest level of engagement activities. In the process, I will endeavour to create an overarching vision of the area which I hope could be used to guide future thinking, practice and research in schools.

The current problem with Engagement

Engagement is not a dirty word, but it’s a highly misappropriated one in the world of 21st Century education.

  • “Here’s a high impact starter activity to engage your kids.”
  • “iPads are great because the kids find them naturally engaging.”
  • “To what degree were the children engaged during that lesson?”

The bottom line from most uses of the word seems to be that if pupils are a) willing to be in the room and b) aren’t doing or thinking about their own things, then that’s great. And for sure, it’s a pretty important precursor to learning being able to take place, and in some school situations, with some children, it is a significant achievement.

There are three issues to consider with this:

  • Just creating conditions where children biddably focus on what you want isn’t actually the same as purposeful learning taking place, directed towards a strategically chosen goal.
  • Many “high-impact engaging activities” even if packed with juicy learning objectives, actually distract children from the core focus of the learning.
  • There are long term consequences to the ways in which we habitually gain the attention and compliance of children.

Now, there is a debate to be had about just how much learning can take place “through the back door”, when children are mainly focused on other things. This isn’t really my focus here – but I do think you could probably grade an activity based on the ‘degree of separation’ between the fully attentive focus of the learner and the content which you are hoping will become learned.

“Memory is the residue of thinking” says Dan Willingham. And conscious, deliberate thinking goes where our attention goes. So clearly we need to engage our pupils’ deliberate, conscious attention with the actual content to be learned. In that sense then, engagement really is an essential concept.

Now, Peter Blenkinsop wrote a series of blog posts last Autumn (here, here and here) trying to unpick this area, believing that the way to go was somehow to separate the teacher and the activities from the process of engagement and get the pupils to just ‘engage’ with learning. I think he might come back to this at some point, as he hadn’t yet managed to put his finger on exactly how. He did identify a need to go from the extrinsic to the intrinsic, and was obviously sensitive to the distracting quality of some efforts to get pupils to engage, but I want to take things much further in these posts.

Before I get on to doing that however, I want to put before you two further concepts which I think are absolutely key to unravelling the messy blur of engagement strategies.

One of these clearly is motivation. What I think Peter withdrew when he labelled the teacher’s activities as getting in the way of learning is the need, nevertheless, for pupils to be motivated to turn their attention to the actual objects of learning.

The second of these concepts is something which I think I am likely to come back to on more than one occasion in these blogs, and have just dedicated a separate post to, and that is that everything we do in the classroom has an effect on how well a pupil acquires the immediate learning objective, but it also conditions pupils’ attitudes, expectations and ways of acting in their future selves. In other words, it prepares them (or otherwise) for their future life, and I divide this world into 3 separate realms: The World of Necessity, the World of Opportunity, and the World of Experience. I will be expanding more on these distinctions in future blog posts.

Now, if we allow ourselves to view ‘ways of getting pupils to engage’ whilst keeping all these ideas on board, then we can create for ourselves a taxonomy of Methods for Engaging Pupils in their Learning, which I will even be so bold as to portray as hierarchical.

Outlining the levels of this hierarchy is the subject of Part 2 of this post.


6 thoughts on “Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 1 – The Problem

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 2 – A Hierarchy of Engagement Methods | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: Pushing Harder at the Purpose of Education | Stepping Back a Little

  3. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement | Stepping Back a Little

  4. Found you blog from 3star learning experiences. You are thinking about very important issues in education that often get glossed over. As a veteran teacher and an ed researcher, I appreciate the reliance on research and your own insights.
    Engagement is more than appearing busy. Your hierarchy in the next post is a tool that can guide teachers to reflect deeper about what they are asking their students to do in their classroom. I hope you can, in the future, flesh it out with some specific examples to make it more useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Alice – your comments are very kind. I have good reason to revisit this area over the next few months, and I would definitely like to revise and flesh-out with more concrete examples.


  5. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED | Stepping Back a Little

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s