Thursday, February 24, 2011

What is Student Engagement?

(from Trailblazers Math, grade 2.)

Many educators feel that if kids are actively doing something, that means they are engaged with learning; conversely, if kids are just sitting quietly, they are not engaged.  I've heard this expressed both by those on the far right (e.g., Whole Brain Teaching) and those on the far left (e.g., constructivist math.)  Whole Brain-ers think that the kids' constant gestures and talking means they're engaged; constructivists think that if kids are measuring and graphing, they're engaged.

Unfortunately, life is not that simple.   It is possible to be mentally engaged while sitting quite still (e.g., while watching a movie), and it is also possible to be mentally absent while moving around (e.g., daydreaming while folding laundry.)  You can make kids move around, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're interested in what they're doing, or that they're learning anything in particular.   A bad project is less engaging than a good lecture.


  1. FedUpMom -- You're cracking me up with these excerpts from Trailblazers. And your point is spot-on: "Busy" plus "work" doesn't equal learning.

  2. @Chris, when contemplating Trailblazers, you can either laugh or cry, or possibly both.

    "Busy" plus "work" doesn't equal learning -- well said.

  3. This 24 four hour watch on kids is what is given to high risk criminals....also this no time for themselves junk. What are we afraid of?

  4. Anne, my "favorite" response to "why so much homework" is: Keeps kids out of trouble. Huh? Exactly what kind of trouble do they think she'll get into?

    Okay, okay, I know. As Alfie Kohn writes, as a culture, we assume kids will always engage in selfish non-productive behavior unless we constantly punish, reward and keep busy. Busy work stems from that twisted thinking, it's of the mindset that we give kids anything, any kind of drek, even if it's mindless, just to keep them "busy" and out of trouble.

    What about homes in which we are keeping an eye on our kids? And by that I don't mean, as you say, Anne, 24-hour surveillance. I mean we have a connection, a relationship, some mutual trust.

    My kid is a nerd. What was she doing instead of homework? Stealing a joint at age ten when I'm not looking? Yea, right. She's reading Wuthering Heights! She's drawing. She's building a space ship. She's dreaming about being on a space ship. And I hear one more teacher tell me how unusual that is, that she's the only one in the country who would dare to actually learn when not forced to, I'm finally going to explode and throw a brick. I'm not violent. I'll throw it in the water, not at them.

    I got so sick and tired of teachers planning our free time. And the worst of it is, you can't even believe the groupspeak, that it's for the kids' own good. More often than not, all that busy work was A. to impress the parents B. to mask the time wasted at school C. To drill compliance and authoritarianism. I'M THE BOSS, YOU DO WHAT I SAY. Or else... Make the parent quake. That oughta get rid of them.

    Lovely. But to quote Alfie Kohn again, our kids are learners, not workers.

  5. Agreed. Some of the most interesting classes I've ever taken were college lectures that involved sitting on my butt in a huge auditorium for 45 minutes. I am currently enrolled in a non-credit French class in a continuing education program, and I love it. By the standards of today's educational thinking, it's not a great class. Our teacher works almost entirely out of the book, gives us workbook work for homework, and it's a lot of grammar and memorization. But the teacher is 3-dimensional, she's a human being. She engages with us. And we don't get graded and we're not lectured for not doing the homework. Everything about the class is voluntary. I actually want to do the homework, I wouldn't mind if there was more.

  6. But making the children "report" information they "gather" at home is downright creepy... nevermind the math here for a second...

  7. Like a lot of homework, this brings up class issues. Imagine a single mother of one child, living in poverty. They each own one pair of shoes. How would the child "choose three colors of shoes?" Wouldn't the child feel embarrassed to reveal her family's poverty?

    For any family, what a pointless pain in the arse.

  8. Bookmarking an article that explains long division --

    Long Division

  9. Exactly!

    I love the movie analogy--I was going to use something similar in a now-dead post.

    As I said at my site (and thanks for the link to the long-division post):

    "There is this weird conviction that if students aren't doing something with their hands or asking questions or directing themselves outward in some visible way with regard to the instruction, then they absolutely must be sitting there in a virtual comatose state, drooling and laughing like morons, while all those entertaining explanations simply bounce off their skulls and fly out into the ether."

  10. Hi, J.D. Fisher! Your explanation of long division is the clearest I've ever seen.

    This prejudice in favor of motion is the only possible explanation for the awe-struck descriptions that constructionists write about their pet projects.

  11. Education theory still, sadly, comes from the classroom. So there is no way of knowing--as of yet--whether any popular method is actually effective or whether it's just an expediency, designed to make the classroom more manageable.