In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED

In my previous two posts I made a dual case:

  • We morally SHOULD aim for school – including lessons – to be overall a joyous, happy, ‘fun’ part of life worth living in itself (not just safe & dignified).
  • For both moral and practical reasons we SHOULD nevertheless educate children to deal with both the absence of fun, and for the ability to eschew immediate pleasure in order to access higher forms of positive affect

I’m following those up with a brief 3-part blog series about practical issues which arise from this for our in-lesson teaching techniques.

To start with, I’m taking a freshly envisaged fly-past of engagement – something which I devoted a heavyweight trilogy of posts to here, here and here. I will follow that up with a look at the challenge of overstimulation, and finally ‘explicit’ vs ‘implicit’ motivation.

So, being ‘ENGAGED’…

The pursuit of the first goal I mentioned above, combines with some pretty reasonable common sense and cognitive science to convince us that we really do want children to be ‘engaged’ in lessons; most of the stuff which we are trying to teach children beyond pre-school is the kind of stuff which will only get into long-term memory if it is thought about (the ‘biologically secondary learning’ of our cultural creations). Someone who is disengaged won’t learn anything, and we want them to enjoy themselves so we really do need things to be ‘engaging’, right?

The word engaged can rather confusingly be used to imply different things:

We can be…

Engaged IN  (Action)

Engaged WITH  (Thinking)

Engaged BY  (Interest)

Now, there are some later phases of learning where simply being engaged ‘in’ doing something can be beneficial (overlearning), but in general, for initial learning and deliberate practice to take place, we really need to be actively thinking and engaging ‘with’ something.

What about being engaged ‘by’? Well, we don’t actually have to be engaged by something to be engaged with it. So learning doesn’t require that something is naturally ‘engaging’ to us.

However, there is my initial assertion that overall, schooling should create a positive affect in children, and for this to come about, there needs to occur a fair number of learning activities which they find naturally enjoyable. Exactly quite what this might mean in practice I will address in the next two posts.

Additionally, there is also the important case that in order for children to engage with thinking about something, they have be motivated to do it – one way or another. One of the simplest ways of this happening is if they are naturally interested in it, and they WANT to engage with it. A powerful further step beyond this is that positive emotional experiences are addictive – humans will want to repeat them without much cajoling. Consequently, there are multiple reasons as to why we should want a fair proportion of our teaching and learning activities to be actually ‘enjoyable’.

Here though, we can run into a classic problem…

Engagement Unpacked

Hopefully the above diagram will make some sense on its own, but the bottom line which I would hope for you to take from it is that misguided attempts to ensure that learners are ‘engaged by’ their learning can lead to the adoption of activities which really don’t help them learn what it is that you actually want them to learn, all that much.

Of course, there is always something which can be learned from anything we do – so I would want to be careful in stating that nothing is being learned – but we presumably pick particular learning objectives for a reason.

Also – of course – if you take seriously my assertion about school being ‘fun’ overall, it might be that at a particular point and time you really do just want them to do something ‘fun’ to inject positive affect into what is otherwise a pretty dry or relentless period of learning. Some would say that that is what break-times are for. I would say that that’s not a sufficient ‘get-out clause’ for multiple reasons (perhaps another time).

Consequently then, the first message from this trio of posts is that whilst we SHOULD strive for our lessons and learning activities to frequently contain things which learners will find naturally engaging, we must be very careful to not let this divert us from ensuring that whatever it is that the children are engaged BY, their minds still remain engaged WITH the actual objective of learning, as closely as possible.

In the next post I am going to consider the overlapping issue of overstimulation.

2 thoughts on “In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED

  1. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 2: The Threat of OVERSTIMULATION | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 3: From EXTRINSIC to INTRINSIC | Stepping Back a Little

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