At a workshop last week, the speaker reminded us that “student engagement” is not the same thing as “having fun”. Student engagement is one of the current catch phrases in education. We know that engaged students are more likely to learn more. But what is student engagement exactly and how is it different than having fun?
Vygotsky talks about engagement as a sense of “flow”. That state when you are so engaged that time flies by. It is described as an optimal challenge—not so difficult that anxiety kicks in but not so easy that boredom sets in. When I think of “fun” activities, I don’t usually think of challenge as necessarily being part of the fun although I have often found challenges to be fun. So what can teachers do to create situations in which there is high student engagement?
Ensure sufficient background knowledge. A grade 8 class will be starting literature circles in a few days. The novels have themes that the teacher feels will be complex or foreign to the students. He arranges for the students to do some background knowledge research on the topics before they start reading. The students are surprised by some of the information they discover and now are keen to start their novels. The teacher has ensured that the students will not get lost in the plot because he has provided the students with sufficient background knowledge. Without the background knowledge many of these students would have ended up confused in their novels. Confusion does not lead to engagement.
Encourage curiosity. A 3 year old is curious about everything (Why? Why? Why?). We see less of that as time goes by. But I don’t think that people grow less curious. Perhaps the school system is too rigid to encourage curiosity and students quickly learn that school is about doing what the teacher wants, not asking questions. Although, as the teacher, you need to follow the curriculum and can’t really go off in any direction at all, you can create conditions of wonder. You can start the science unit with an experiment instead of the theory (I wonder why oil and water don’t mix but salt and water do); you can pose a question in geography (I wonder why people choose to live in cities instead of the country). And your wonderings don’t have to be big questions. You could bring in an odd object and have students figure it out (like a dragon fruit or an old rotary phone); you can ask a question (I wonder how ducks talk to their babies to warn them of danger) and have students use google to search possible answers. Here is a great article about the power of curiosity and learning: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb13/vol70/num05/The-Case-for-Curiosity.aspx.
Provide opportunities for social learning. When we are really interested in something, we like to talk about it. We like to bounce our ideas off others and this helps us to refine our thinking. Conversations which are the most engaging are those where there is a free exchange of ideas and no obvious answer. Watch a group of kindergarten students trying to build the tallest tower with blocks. They spend a lot of time talking about the problem. When students work together to solve easy math problems, usually the faster student does the work. But when students have a problem to grapple with and their collective math knowledge is required to solve the problem, they are very engaged. When students engage in literature circles that mimic adult book clubs (I have never been handed a role card at book club; we never talk one at a time around a circle), they love their books and deepen their understanding. One grade 7 class is so engrossed in their dystopian literature circles that the librarian has had to start a wait list for books that students want to read. Not only are students talking about their books in their own literature circle but they are talking among circles about books. In that class, reading is a social event (except when you walking in during reading time you can hear a pin drop).
Tell stories: Everyone loves stories and when we can present content in story format, students tend to remember it longer. We know that the narrative format helps to create visual imagery for students. Use analogies; show movie clips or photos; tell them about your own experiences; think aloud as you are reading a novel. Next time you listen to a good speaker at a workshop or on a Ted Talk, take notice of how he or she uses narrative to illustrate a point. “Let me tell you a story…” is an engaging technique for everyone, even adolescents.
Make it real. Kids know busy work when they see it. They will do it because you told them to; they might enjoy it because who doesn’t like to do the occasional word search; but it isn’t the same as engaging. Be careful that you aren’t just creating one “fun” or “cool” activity after another. Engagement happens when students can connect their learning and know that they are developing their skills. Not only do we want to create optimal challenges but we want students to feel successful. Knowing that you are getting better at something that was challenging creates engagement and a willingness to persevere. Sebastian, age 13, told me today that BEDMAS with integers was “easy schmeasy”. I know that two weeks ago he did very poorly on the same assessment. But his teacher continued to provide optimal challenges and returned to the concepts over and over. Now he feels confident, successful and engaged in mathematics.