Student Engagement: not worth the trouble or critical to learning?


As a teacher, this question really bothers me. It’s the one that gets me most animated on EdTwitter, the one I can’t pass up, the one I find myself gnawing on long after the conversation has finished. Genuinely I can’t understand why people think it’s not important; how can it not be?

Bored people don’t learn, especially bored little people. I’ve seen it time and again: that moment when a child’s eyes switch off and their mind disappears to another place. For those who can, they still ‘look’ like they’re interested, for others the strain is too much and their bodies follow their minds and they start finding other things to occupy themselves – the girl in front’s pony-tail, the bits of Lego on the carpet, the dead wasp on the windowsill – pretty much anything other than my tedious voice.

When I see it, my heart sinks. It did when I first started teaching and it still does now. It’s like a slap in the face, they are saying – “You’re boring me. Do something about it.” Of course, most of the time this isn’t what they say, but it’s there all the same, in their eyes.

Now, for me, this is and always has been a problem. You might call it a bit of an obsession. All my career I’ve tried to find ways to make learning both meaningful and interesting. Not to entertain them, that’s easy (for a bit), but to find ways that grab their attention and make them want to learn. Make them so interested that they forget about the Lego, the wasp on the windowsill or Amy’s pony-tail and concentrate with all their attention on the subject in hand.

Of course (and let me emphasise this, since it is often misunderstood), we can’t make every lesson interesting for every student all the time. That would be impossible and possibly undesirable. I certainly think that a little monotonous boredom and working on the something beyond the point where you want to stop is good for building up resilience, so long as (and let me emphasise this too) the thing you’re slogging at is worth doing. And you understand why.

It is not good enough to tell students “because it’s in the curriculum.” or, because it’s on the test.” That’s about as motivating as saying “because I told you to.” It didn’t work with me, so why would I expect it to work with them?

Wrapped up in this is the tricky problem of human agency. By this I mean people’s sense of themselves, their identity and what they want to do with their lives. To want to learn, I have to be invested in the learning – especially if it’s difficult. If I’m not invested then my mind wanders and I’ll put my energies into something else.

For some children, learning itself can be motivating. They buy into the process, understand how they benefit, and appreciate the rewards. For others, learning is a chore, a tedious waste of time, and something to be avoided at all costs (even at the cost of being punished). The rest of us fall somewhere between the two, finding some things interesting and worth investing time and energy in, and others, not worth the effort.

For instance, think of a boring INSET day or staff meeting. People on EdTwitter complain about them often enough for there to be an obvious problem. What do they say? “The training was irrelevant to my context.” “It was boring and pointless.” “Death by powerpoint.” “My time could have been better spent doing something else.” Are these complaints reasonable? They sound it to me. Now imagine what students say about their lessons. Would they have the same complaints? And would they be equally reasonable? Or should we dismiss them because they are children and don’t know any better?

For me students deserve the same level of respect we give adults and if they’re finding their lessons boring and irrelevant then we need to listen to these complaints and do something about it.

But what can we do?

Some things just are boring. Of course it depends on the person. Some students hate handwriting practice, others love it. Some hate maths, for others it’s their favourite subject. Some people (very odd in my opinion) hate history and always have. My answer is to be honest with the students, tell them what we’re trying to do and admit not every lesson will be interesting for everyone. But (and this is the crucial bit) we will try our best to make it interesting and we’ll never ask them to do anything that wastes their time.

How does this work in practice? I’d suggest the first step is to listen. Ask your class what they like and what they don’t like about learning. What lessons they find interesting or boring, what subjects they want to find out more about and what subjects they’ve had enough of. And really listen. By that I mean be prepared to act on what they say and continue to talk to them – “How are things going with writing now? Have the changes we’ve made had an effect or do you still feel the same way?”

The second step is to explain the purpose of the work you’re asking the students to do. By this I don’t mean the learning objective, that’s the outcome, I mean why are they writing a chronological report? – Who’s going to read it? How are they going to react? And what change is going to make?

This is where imaginative contexts can prove useful. If the students are interested and invested in a fiction then the meaning and purpose can come from inside the story. For example, if they’re working as a team of accident investigators working for a government committee on the sinking of the Titanic, then their chronological reports are both relevant and meaningful inside the fiction.

The third step is reflection and review. Are things changing in your classroom? Are you seeing higher levels of engagement? Is this reflected in the quality and quantity of the students’ work? And are they aware themselves of this change – do they feel more motivated, more interested in their learning?

These are serious questions.

To dismiss them as irrelevant or to argue engagement is not a critical aspect of learning is a copout, an easy way to avoid the hard thinking. Trying to make our lessons interesting, striving to capture the imagination and energy of our students, and taking the time to plan meaningful activities, is a central part of our job.

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