Engagement, Teaching and Bias

The cure for cynicism is simply to engage honestly. “ (Jeremy Paxman)

It is interesting how a single tweet can spark such controversy over a single word: “engagement”. Soon after I tweeted

“That is why I am suspicious of people who dismiss “engagement” in relation to school. That is part of your responsibility as a teacher. Students won’t learn just *because* you are an expert in your subject. Period. “

Tweet engagement

an avalanche of tweets, replies and threads of discussion – from my original point (“engagement”) to further related concepts (“expertise”) followed. People taking sides and soon being labeled as “traditional” or “progressive”, misapprehension of the word itself in relation to the school setting and gut-reactions based on personal experiences.

Two clarifications before I embark on the debate – they will come back in my post. I dislike intellectual laziness, and generalizations based on anecdotal evidence or teacher beliefs should be subject to scrutiny at all times, whatever the label you were given on social media.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..     A. Causation is NOT correlation.

Not a single element in the teaching domain *causes* learning per se in disjunction with others.

From national educational policies and curriculum to the school leadership and the pedagogy employed within the classroom walls, these factors constantly influence the outcomes of education. This is also what makes the teaching profession so complex, interesting and frustrating at times: you cannot objectively quantify to what extent a certain component determined a result. Some are more influential than others (see Hattie’s Visible Learning and effect-sizes discussed by David Didau ) but even researchers are cautious to claim that once a strategy is transferred to another educational setting it will have an identical effect. Also, Hattie himself stated, “Visible Learning is a literature review, therefore it says what HAS happened not what COULD happen.” (see Tom Sherrington’s post on Hattie and homework). Moreover, in my conversation with Ron Ritchhart the idea of effect sizes was also questioned  (but I will devote another post on these two books, Visible Learning and Making Thinking Visible).

Let’s take one factor, the curriculum. It might be the best curriculum ever designed but if the teacher content knowledge (knowledge of the subject itself, say history) and pedagogical knowledge (knowledge of how to effectively teach the respective subject) are weak, it won’t have the same impact on student learning as it is intended to have. Reversely, teacher expertise (CK and PK) is greatly challenged and minimized within the constraints of a poorly-designed curriculum. Expertise is NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT.

Even a combination of the two does not result in truly effective learning. A good curriculum and teacher expertise can be extremely burdened by a bizarre educational policy – see over-testing in the U.S.

So, whether you are “progressive” or “traditional” (hooray for labels and laziness. not) in your approach, exercise some critical thinking – which implies breadth, depth and perspective taking. Also, “good” reasons. We are not here to fight over ego or for validation, but to discuss openly and respectfully about what works best for students.

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B. Semantics in educational debate matter.

Whether you use “direct instruction”, “authentic tasks” or another educational jargon it is very likely that others might not have a shared understanding of the concept. Why? Because they come from different cultural, educational and professional backgrounds that heavily influence their use of the term.

Language is dynamic and co-constructed by its users despite its apparent universal permeability of meaning. A simple example that I gave yesterday was the term “Iraq” – think how the Americans relate to this word and how the rest of the world does. This non-intentional yet pervasive emotional connotation (one being “terrorism”) can be found on macro-levels of society, as well as on an individual level.

In education, these emotional responses are triggered by the educator’s experience within a particular educational context. My 3-year interactions with teachers on Twitter have only deepened this awareness.

One example is the word “knowledge”. Many U.S. educators dismiss its importance and the “googlable facts” rhetoric comes into place – I argued against that here (Who Is Afraid of Knowledge?). That reaction might be triggered by the continuous testing and the requirement to regurgitate facts that seem to take hold on schools. This damaging policy (high-stakes testing) combined with the “teaching to the test” (test-prep books abound) are understandable reasons to dismiss knowledge which plays a critical role in developing critical thinking and creativity.

Similarly, the adverse reaction of most U.K. educators to the idea of “engagement” is rooted in a quite general failure of the national educational policies to improve education in the past decades. Even more so when “engagement” was closely linked to a series of external indicators that had to be ticked off on an OFSTED report and many teachers interpreted it as over-emphasis on group work, business and “entertaining” activities.

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Let’s start with the basics.

What IS student engagement?

Researchers describe engagement as “a meta-construct” that combines “behavioral, emotional and cognitive responses”. This multifaceted nature of engagement is reflected in the research literature as seen below:

1. BEHAVIORAL engagement – draws on the idea of participation and it is considered “crucial for achieving positive academic outcomes and preventing dropping out.” (research on behavioral e. related to student conduct and on-task behavior by Karweit, 1989; Peterson, Swing, Stark & Wass, 1984)

It entails positive conduct such as following the rules and adhering to classroom norms (Finn, 1993; Finn,Pannozzo & Voelkl, 1995; Finn & Rock, 1997). Classroom participation (Finn, 1989) is divided into four levels that range from responding to the teacher’s directions to activities that require student initiative. Here the typologies differ from the mere classroom participation to self-directed academic behaviors (Birch & Ladd, 1997; Buhs & ladd, 2001).

2. EMOTIONAL engagement – encompasses positive/negative reactions to academics, teachers, classmates and school and it influences willingness to do the work. (research on student attitudes – Epsteing & McPartland, 1976; Yamamoto, Thomas & Karns, 1969; student interest and values Eccles et al,, 1983)

Students’ affective reactions to academic tasks, teacher, peers and school setting vary from interest to anxiety (Connell and Wellborn, 1991; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). This strongly relates to student motivation as well, about which I talked here and here, drawing on the work of  Kelvin Seifert, Educational Psychology) . Students can exhibit situational interest (directed towards a particular activity/situation) and personal interest (which involves consistent choices to pursue an activity/study and willingness to undertake challenging tasks – Krapp, Hidi &Renninger, 1992).

3. COGNITIVE engagement – relies on the idea of cognitive and volitional investment; it incorporates thoughtfulness and willingness to exert the effort necessary to comprehend complex ideas and master difficult skills. (i.e. research on motivational goals and self-regulated learning Boekarts, Pintrich & Zeidner, 2000; Zimmerman, 1990).  

It focuses on psychological investment in learning, a desire to go beyond requirements, and a preference for challenge (Cornell & Wellborn, 1991; Newmann et al, 1992; Wehlage et al, 1989).

Those who dismiss engagement on grounds of “fuzziness” are just not bothered enough with the complex nature of teaching. I love simplicity myself but not at the expense of student learning. So…”let’s make things simple but not simpler” than they are.

As you can see, research pointed to three dimensions of engagement. A sound body of literature has established, as Vicky Trowler (Dept. of Ed. Research, Lancaster University) mentions, that there are

“robust correlations between student involvement in a subset of educational activities and positive outcomes of student academic achievement, satisfaction and social engagement” (Astin, 1984,1993; Berger and Milem, 1999; Chickering and Gamson, 1987; Goodsell, Maher andTinto, 1992; Kuh, 1995; Kuh et al., 2005; Kuh and Vesper, 1997; Pace, 1995; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991, 2005).

Moreover, the process of disengagement can begin in the early school years if students do not fit in, participate, and succeed(Finn, 1989). Also, “lack of engagement adversely affects student achievement and initiates a downward spiral that may lead to dysfunctional school behavior and, ultimately, culminate in some students leaving school entirely” (Finn, 1989; Newmann, 1981, 1992; Steinberg, 1996; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989).

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Engagement is important. Now what?

1.      Do not mistake engagement with “business” or “fun”.

This is perhaps the most frequent misconception that I encountered in my conversations on social media. Addressing the emotional aspect of engagement does not necessarily lead to learning.

Tweet - learning

(Digression: Here comes to mind the absurd idea of making dioramas, for instance, as a follow-up reading activity. Cutting, gluing and coloring do NOT enhance reading. See my post on math “dance”, too). Students need relevant (not trivial) and challenging learning experiences to develop intellectually and stretch out of their comfort zone.

  • That is partly the reason I do not encourage “hands-on” activities at the expense of intellectual efforts, and that is visible even in the very physical space of my classroom – you will not see “cute” posters, colorful anchor charts or whatever other items that do not directly relate to student construction of meaning and learning. You will find student-generated mind maps, graphs, definitions, questions, reflections – making student thinking visible is part of the process of creating a culture of thinking. (Oh, and they are 2nd graders).
  • Task difficulty and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive. Challenging learning tasks are not “entertaining” but they are enjoyed by students if you create a safe environment, where failure is seen as part of the learning process. We need to stop stigmatizing mistakes – expertise in any domain is achieved by trial and error, by making mistakes and recovering. I always ask for student feedback after a unit of inquiry ends and most activities that were rated as “difficult” (D) were also “enjoyed” (E).

2014-01-28 21.01.04

  • “Business” is the appearance of learning. That can be translated in two ways:

–          high frequency of activities

–          low-level learning engagements  (*Newmann, 1989a; Newmann et al., 1992)

Avoid either of them. More is NOT better. Plan for fewer activities but that require students to engage in thinking. For me personally, it is the planning process that takes much of my time because good teaching means subtraction.

2.      Engagement looks different across grade-levels.

  • Self-regulation, motivation and interests, as well as general psychological development (i.e. attention features – overt/covert orienting, development from focused attention to alternating and sustained attention) influence how students engage with learning tasks age-wise. A 7-year-old’s attention span will make it unlikely for her/him to invest cognitively in a 20-minute lecture while a 12th grader would because of this developed ability to focus on what might appear monotonous material.
  • For the teacher, that means reflecting on pedagogical models s/he employs with respect to the age group they teach.

3.      Engagement is not a “progressive” snake oil. It simply exists.

  • OK, labels again because “engagement” is often associated with “progressive” education. That is ridiculous from the start because “engagement” as a multidimensional response (behavior, emotion, cognition) exists in either setting. Whether you like it or not, it relates to student –hence, teacher personal beliefs are irrelevant. How the teacher acts on these behavioral and psychological dimensions of student participation in school is an entirely different matter – see point A of my post.  If there is bad teaching (either progressive or otherwise), responses from the student side do not delay (see chart below). Those who claim “engagement” to be a “romantic “ view on education lack either background knowledge in the domain of educational psychology, or simply have too strong convictions.

Engagement, non eng

Tweet - shared responsibility

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Conclusion:

If you are a true critical thinker (see my post Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box), you would consider a breadth of views and evidence in order to make an accurate judgment. See what works in other educational systems and why it works; why some ideas may be applicable in your classroom and why some won’t; how much your own prejudices impede your understanding and to what extent your own cultural legacy shapes your teaching. Simply rejecting what you find different or in opposition to your beliefs is definitely not a sign of good application of thinking, however popular you are in the social media.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”  (Michael Scriven and Richard Paul,  Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987)

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References:

Student Engagement in Instructional Activity: Patterns in the Elementary, Middle, and High School Years, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), Helen M. Marks
 School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence, Jennifer A. Fredricks, Phyllis C. Blumenfeld and Alison H. Paris, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), 
Pedagogy and Teacher Knowledge Models, Cogill J., 2008
 A Comparison of International Student and American Student Engagement in Effective Educational Practices, Chun-Mei Zhao, George D. Kuh and Robert M. Carini, The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 2005)Student Engagement – Literature Review, Vicki Trowler, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University (2010)
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6 Comments to “Engagement, Teaching and Bias”

  1. Hmmmm. Well I didn’t see what everyone said about engagement, but my main complaint was that as a term it was ambiguous. I think the above post really only confirms that point.

  2. Re: your comment on expertise in subject matter, check out the following articles for an interesting look at the subject.

    Knowing Mathematics for teaching (Ball and Bass) http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/65072/Ball_F05.pdf

    Renert, M., & Davis, B. (2010a) An open way of being: Integral reconceptualization of mathematics for teaching.In Esbjörn-Hargens, S., Reams, J.& Gunnlaugson (cannot find this online, email me if you would like a copy)

  3. I will read this later, in transit. I’ve skimmed it for now, and the trigger word for me in the first quote is the word “honestly”. I think you get at the meaning of it in your conclusion, and I like the comparison to Critical Thinking – I’ve often thought of Sincerity (similar to Honesty) as one of those words that people throw around because it sounds good, but actually has no meaning unless it is attached to something. Do you think that honesty/sincerity is like Critical Thinking (and like Connecting, as I’ve mentioned before) in that one has to be Honest ‘in some way’?

  4. Absolutely, Glen. “Fairness” and “good reasons” are two criteria that are included in the description of critical thinking.
    Fairness to me is close to honesty/sincerity (impartiality, objectivity – avoiding bias).

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