Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement

In the first post of this three-part blog, I sought to identify weaknesses with the way in which the concept of pupil ‘engagement’ is talked about and used in schools. In the second part, I produced a hierarchical framework intended to organise classroom engagement methods according to what I consider to be their long-term worth. In doing this I distinguished between Engagement Tablewhether their locus of motivation was intrinsic or extrinsic, and also as to whether they prepared children for the respective worlds of Necessity, Opportunity, or Experience.

In this final post I wish to go into some detail regarding what I have portrayed as the highest level of engagement methods, and called ‘Level 4’ in my hierarchy.

If you need a reminder of the taxonomy, click on the image to the right:

A detailed discussion about Level 4

At this level, pupils are effectively doing what they want to do once more, but not because they are being ‘pandered to’. They are caught-up in the intrinsic process of learning and working towards something, and find it a self-motivating experience. Once the taste of this has been acquired by pupils, it will provide the bedrock for them to become lifelong lovers of learning, knowledge and mastery for its own sake, and to be ripe for making the most of the Worlds of Opportunity and Experience. Whilst some children seemed naturally ‘wired’ in this way in the first place, most of them aren’t, but teachers can expose them to key experiences which “ignite the burners” so to speak.

Recent books such as Engaging Learners by Andy Griffith and Mark Burns have started to point the way towards this level of engagement, although to my mind they have still mixed-in a hub-bub of engagement techniques without distinguishing the relative value of some of them as I have tried to do over the course of this post. The ultimate goal in Engaging Learners is to try to get pupils into a state of flow, with the assumption that the more this happens, the more children will crave the experience of purposeful learning. I think that this is certainly likely to have a beneficial effect on children’s attitudes to learning, but I would seek to also build-in other high-level intrinsic engagement mechanisms to try to reinforce the long-term ‘autotelic’ toolkit which we gift to the children.

So, my aim, slightly different to Griffiths’ and Burns’, is that the methods we use to help get children engaged at this highest level are all things which leave them with the ability and motivation to keep going without us, and without them simply seeking to take the path of least resistance around areas of challenge, which the lowest levels of engagement methods tend to foster.

I’m going to start by talking a bit about flow, so as to demonstrate why we need more tools at our disposal.

Flow – Peak Experiences of Human Engagement

Most people reading this post will probably have come across the concept of flow by now, as it has rapidly grown in popularity, much as Dweck’s mindsets theory has. The label is 25 years old now, having been coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience we have when fully caught up with autotelic activities (activities where the experience of doing them is reward in itself). If you haven’t actually read the book Flow itself, then I would heartily recommend it to you, as it paints a far richer picture of human functioning and motivation than you will get from summaries of the theory.

For flow to occur there needs to be a balance between the skills that we have and the challenge that we face, but there also need to be a few more ingredients…

For a start, we need to actually want to be doing the activities. If we’re being compelled, or we just aren’t that interested, then we won’t get fully engaged, even if the match between the challenge and our skills is perfect.

Secondly, we need to have an undivided attention; the challenge which we are caught-up in needs to be singular, with the route ahead apparent to us, and ready feedback available on our progress. It also seems, according to Csikszentmihalyi, that we need to feel undistracted by niggling thoughts in other directions, which can include doubts about our competence, about whether this is the best thing to be doing at this time, about how our reputation might be effected by our performance etc. Basically, we need to have what he calls ‘ordered consciousness’.

Ultimately, it’s possible that pupils could get flow from just about any part of the school day if the conditions were just right, but realistically it is only going to happen sporadically, and in terms of ‘engineered’ situations, only during certain phases of the learning process. Interestingly, I think it is most likely to happen in schools in activities which are both highly structured but also ‘free’ (more about this at the end).

So, my belief is that there are other things we need to do if we want to fully ignite the joy of learning about, and working away at, just about any area of knowledge and skill.

Stimulating Curiosity

The first of the other areas where I believe we can make an active, lasting difference is in the stimulation and cultivation of curiosity. This has the potential to engage children into a subject area before they are at a stage of experiencing flow.

Now, of course, teachers have gone on about this for years, but generally by bemoaning the lack of it in modern children, as well as the apparent likelihood that it is something innate which you can’t really teach.

My thoughts on this were opened-up quite a lot by Annie Murphy-Paul a couple of years ago who drew on a mixture of sources to give an idea how we can go about stimulating curiosity other than by the massive sensory overstimulation which tends to happen with Level 1 engagement techniques. Here I’m going to draw on her synthesis but rebuild it in my own fashion. For the sake of brevity though, I’m not going to labour which bit is me, and which bit was her and her sources! (you can work it out by following the links if interested)

So – techniques for stimulating curiosity:

  1. Pose questions rather than make statements. Humans seem wired to tune-in more to questions than statements, and if you ask enough of them, it becomes habit forming in the minds of children to start asking their own.
  2. Draw attention to some knowledge areas which pupils already have, which seem unrelated to them, but which are actually are linked. Make them aware of the gap in their knowledge which is the link between the two areas. The idea here is that we only really experience curiosity when presented with areas that we already know something about. Once our attention is drawn to a missing piece in the puzzle, then we start to feel the itch of curiosity. QI does this all the time when posing its questions… something like “Why might King Henry XIII be said to have had the first X-box?”. We hear that, we know about King Henry XIII, we know about X-boxes, we know that there shouldn’t be any link between them, and we are hooked… (incidentally, I just randomly made this up, but if you can creatively think of any link between them, you are welcome post it in the replies section). A really key thing is that we don’t get the curiosity itch about things we don’t really know anything about – the cognitive gap is just too big. It is only in the creases of our existing knowledge. This is a massive advert for the benefits of a knowledge rich education, as it is a particular variant of the Matthew Effect. The more things we know, the more things we are likely to be curious about.
  3. If children don’t have enough particularly relevant knowledge to get to where you really need to be starting, then, yes, you could ‘prime the pump’ or ‘frontload’ with some eye-catching facts using a simple Level 2 engagement technique! The beginnings of a topic are probably the best time to use such approaches.
  4. Zooming-In and Zooming-Out. This might be called something else by other people, but this is what I personally call in. I’ve based it on a theory I have that if you look closely enough at anything, or step back far enough from it, then you can find a level of resolution whereby you find it interesting. In essence you are finding the resolution at which it seems to fit into an appropriately sized natural gap in your knowledge. I think I will try to write more about this another time, as it’s an area I feel has a lot of potential, both for getting children engaged, but also as a technique they can use themselves. I personally find myself using if I am stuck when talking to someone who it seems at first glance I don’t have anything particularly in common with. Having established some kind of basic credentials about them, I try to think of ‘close-up’ practical characteristics or implications of having the kind of job or interests that they have, or zoom-out to a level at which their experiences could be seen to overlap with mine. Csikszentmihalyi relates how people in highly constrained situations (such as prison) start to focus-in and find interest in very subtle features of their surroundings, asking questions which they’d never normally be bored-enough to ask. This, I think, relates to what I’m suggesting.

There is quite a lot then that we can work with here to motivate children to want to look closer and find out more about areas we would like them to learn about, and perhaps bring them closer to where they can start to experience ‘flow’.

Bridging the gap of Liminality

So, we know that we can hook children into a subject area by stimulating authentic interest in it, and we know that once they’re up and running with a specific challenge then we can hope to shape circumstances such that they will experience ‘flow’.

However, Martin Robinson has recently blogged about the twilight zone which we as teachers lead pupils into (well, he worded it more poetically). The bottom line is that a lot of real learning is hard work, and the path to ‘getting it’ can be downright uncomfortable. Essential there is a liminal state in learning, particularly when trying to make a breakthrough with threshold concepts, where we have dismantled the order of things which had been our previous secure understanding , but we haven’t yet gained sufficient mastery over the new way of looking at things in order to have a new, secure psychological structure in place. The point is that people tend to find this intrinsically uncomfortable, and children are instinctively likely to want to wriggle away from it and disengage.

How should this liminal gap be made passable? Well, this is one of those areas where, as an adult, we would rely on the Level 3 mechanisms which we had mastered in order to cope with the World of Necessity. In other words, we would draw on our natural grit to dig-in in the pursuit of long term goals which we want to achieve. This is fine, and we can work with this pushing the children with motivational exhortations to keep going.

However, I think that we have other options available to us. Griffiths and Burns in their book Teaching Backwards, draw attention to the use some teachers make of the metaphor of ‘The Pit’  (coined by James Nottingham). With this, they encourage children to picture times of ‘not getting it’ as a necessary phase to getting to an eventual better place, and one way or another, probably combined with growth mindset style coaching, they get them to wrestle their way through The Pit.

I think that this is a very good way of drawing attention tothe special role that teachers do have in enabling learning to take place, and the higher the quality of the ‘guide on the side’ motivational coaching skills that we possess, then unarguably the more ability we have to get children to push on. I certainly imagine as well that the more times children experience having struggled but having then prevailed due to persisting, then the more habitual the process of pushing through difficulties will become.

However, I want to throw in one more idea of how we as teachers can play a special role in motivating the pupils to push on during states of liminality, and that is through contagion.

Contagion… what do I mean by that? I mean, that, when we teachers are at our best, we exhibit an obvious delight in the intrinsic, autotelic value of the subject area we are teaching, as well as in the process of learning itself. And when we are at our best, we also have open between us and our pupils an interpersonal channel that allows our own enthusiasms to flow freely across into them as well. And so, my proposition is that when we are at a very best, the children are so ignited by the sense of delight that we exude that they think “I want some of that… I’m pushing on with this!”

Finally… Goldilocks Zone Autonomy

The final ingredient which I will add to the Level 4 engagement methods band is what I’m calling Goldilocks Zone Autonomy.

This is a concept which I think I will explore in more detail in another post, and it’s one that I am putting here with caution.

There is no doubt, in reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Daniel Pink’s Drive that a key ingredient in human peak performance and peak experience is a sense of autonomy. Experiences of flow are opted into. The finest creative insights are done when people are freely playing around with an idea because they have an intrinsic interest, and not because of carrots and sticks. People are most curious about the things that they are naturally interested in.

Consequently, if we really want our Level 4 engagement techniques to take hold and for pupils to become passionate about subject areas, the quest for knowledge, and the very enterprise of


4 thoughts on “Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement

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

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 1 – The Problem | Stepping Back a Little

  3. Pingback: Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation | Stepping Back a Little

  4. Pingback: The Thirst for Mastery: Eternal CPD – Part 1 | Stepping Back a Little

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