Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

7 Ways to Spark Engagement

CJ Westerberg, September 30, 2012 6:49 PM


Ed. Note: This particular post is more than a 7-step program.  It's as much about how educators and parents may fool themselves into believing a student may be engaged, when in fact, is not.  The flip side of this equation is the discussion whether engagement is really a synonym for entertainment, rather than real learning, as discussed here.  Think the
points raised in this post attempt to bridge that gap.

Let us know what you think.  Like this discussion. 
                                                                             - C.J. Westerberg

"Some students, particularly older ones, have become masters at what Bishop and Pflaum (2005) refer to as "pretend-attend."
They've mastered the ability
to look busy, focused, and on-task, but in reality they are disengaged in the actual learning."
-Bryan Harris

Seven Ways to Go from On-Task to Engaged

by Bryan Harris

We know that engagement is the key to learning, but we also know that many of our students are bored with the curriculum and activities being offered in classrooms. To battle this problem, much focus and attention has been placed on getting students to be "on-task." Indeed, the link between on-task behavior and student achievement is strong. However, just as a worker at a company can be busy without being productive, a student can be on-task without actually being engaged in the learning. True, long-lasting learning comes not merely as a result of being on-task, but being deeply engaged in meaningful, relevant, and important tasks.

We see examples of on-task but disengaged behavior every day: students mindlessly copying notes from a screen, listening to a lecture but daydreaming about what to do after school, robotically completing a worksheet. Some students, particularly older ones, have become masters at what Bishop and Pflaum (2005) refer to as "pretend-attend." They've mastered
the ability to look busy, focused, and on-task, but in reality they are disengaged in the actual learning.

So, how do we ramp up both on-task behavior and real, meaningful engagement for our students?  Here are seven easy ways to increase the likelihood that students are both
engaged and on-task:

1)  Teach students about the process of focus, attention, and engagement. Tell them about how the brain works and help them to recognize the characteristics of real engagement.

2)  When designing objectives, lessons, and activities, consider the task students are being asked to complete. Is the task, behavior, or activity one that is relevant, interactive, and meaningful, or is it primarily designed to keep kids busy and quiet?

3)  Ask your students about their perspectives, ideas, and experiences. What do they find engaging, real, and meaningful?
4)  Create authentic reasons for learning activities. Connect the objectives, activities, and tasks to those things that are interesting and related to student experiences.

5)  Provide choice in the way students learn information and express their knowledge.

6)  Incorporate positive emotions including curiosity, humor, age-appropriate controversy, and inconsequential competition. (Inconsequential competition is described by Marzano [2007] as competition in the spirit of fun with no rewards, punishments or anything of "consequence" attached.)

7)  Allow for creativity and multisensory stimulation (think art, drama, role play, and movement).

Have you noticed that on-task does not always mean engaged?
How do you achieve both?

Post submitted by Bryan Harris, director of professional development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education. More information can be found at http://www.bryan-harris.com/.

Posted The Daily Riff June 14, 2011. This post originally appeared in the ASCD Inservice.

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Why Testing Fails:  Why Numbers Deceive Us All  by Joe Ganem

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Harvard Education Icon Howard Gardner Reveals

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  • johngschroeder

    My fatal flaw is my mischievousness and I was most engaged in high school when I was screwing around in a lab, arguing something controversial in history or writing a sarcastic and unrelated satire into an essay. I now enjoy learning but I am truly amazed at how my teachers got the work out of me that they did.

  • Very interesting post, Brian, and one which has resonance in the UK school system. In fact, isn't engagement ont of THE biggest challenges for schools worldwide? In the Learning Futures project (www.learningfutures.org) we have investigated strategies for going beyond the compliance model of engagement that you describe. It's a woeful indictment of our system when compliance and test successes are the sole arbiters of successful schooling, not a love of learning, lifelong. I heard one Australian educator bemoan the fact that they'd received guidance from their education department that 'an engaged classroom is a quiet classroom' - God forbid! The University of Western Sydney talks about true engagement resembling students, not being 'on-task', but 'in task'. For our part, we still see, in attempts to increase engagement, too much of teacher-as-entertainer, rather than quality of learning design: planning activities that will deeply engage. No worksheet in the world will deeply engage students. We encourage teachers to design learning activities against a check-list of the Four Ps:

    Is an activity PLACED? (Does it relate to the student's lived experience/community/family/peer relationships)

    Is it PURPOSEFUL? (Does it result in a difference to the community they live in? Can the community be involved in assessing the work?)

    Is it PRINCIPLED? (Does it matter to students' moral and ethical drivers? Are they getting fired up about the underlying issues?)

    Is it PERVASIVE? (Is it so compelling that they might want to extend their enquiries beyond school, or the likelihood of it coming up on the test?)

    In our experience, if it ticks none of these criteria, it's not likely to deeply engage, no matter how 'charismatic' the teacher.

    With regard to you 7 'easy ways', we don't think there are any easy ways to engagement, but some of your suggestions work more pwerfully than others.

    1) I believe this would lead to the kind of self-consciousness that any driver experiences when they have to really think about their operations when driving a car...

    2) Yes! If you're designing activities primarily to keep kids quiet, find another job

    3) Yes! Consult, Consult.

    4) Absolutely

    5) Choice is VITAl to student engagement

    6) Not a high priority for us

    7) Shouldn't all teaching/learning activites do this?

    Important stuff - look forward to the discussion!

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