“Engagement” is not a useful concept

A recent study showed that, “direct instruction made… children less curious.” One group of children had a toy demonstrated for them by a teacher whereas another group was presented with the toy by someone who pretended not to know how it worked. The children in the first group used the toy in the way it had been demonstrated whereas the second group spent time discovering different ways to use the toy.

This is hardly surprising. As Alison Gopnick notes, in the first group, “…the learner unconsciously thinks: ‘She’s a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me.’ These assumptions lead children to narrow in and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides.”

What’s interesting here is not the fact that children assume that their teachers are providing them with information in an efficient manner, but the definition of ‘curiosity’. It seems to be ‘to engage in discovery learning behaviour’. For all we know, the children could have been utterly bored with the toy and just fiddling about with it aimlessly. And how would this definition capture the curiosity aroused in a child gripped by a fascinating story? Would that child have to actually play about with something otherwise it doesn’t count?

The problem here is the circularity of the argument. Proponents of discovery learning define curiosity as ‘to engage in discovery learning’ and, lo and behold, they find that promoting discovery learning leads to greater curiosity. Who would have thought?

I’ve mentioned this study before and I was reminded of it when Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) tweeted: “The big challenge for neo-trads is to explain how to make the curriculum engaging for students. Most ignore the problem.”

I have been called a ‘neo-trad’ and so I assume this applies to me. Making this assumption, my first reaction was one of surprise. It seems to me that I am blogging about engagement all of the time with this post being just the most recent example.

However, after reflecting on this for a while, I suspect the problem here is the same as the problem we have with the word ‘curiosity’. Perhaps what I class as engagement is different to what Tim classes as engagement.

Tim is an advocate of the Mantle of the Expert approach to teaching things, a method that I wrote about in my recent ebook. Briefly, and not doing it full justice, this method uses drama activities in the course of teaching by, for instance, creating a pretend Bronze Age community. I can imagine myself as a student in this situation. It would not have been the sort of thing that I would have enjoyed. However, I would have been as behaviourally active as anyone else, doing what I was expected to do (it is only as an adult that I have gained the strength of personality to refuse to participate in role-play activities during training sessions). Would I have been engaged?

I think it is extremely important to ensure the attention of students and I often write about how this might be achieved. This is the key difference between straight lecturing and explicit instruction. The latter is highly interactive with the teacher constantly asking questions of the students. Doug Lemov has written about techniques for ensuring student attention such as tracking. However, progressive educators have been notably critical of such techniques and so we must presume that this is not what is seen as ‘engagement’.

Instead, perhaps engagement has to come from within the student, something that they bring to the equation in response to an activity. They need to be able to respond as they wish, with a positive response showing evidence of engagement. The trouble is, like the earlier definition of ‘curiosity’ this is therefore impossible in a teacher directed classroom, by definition. The student who is enraptured by her teacher’s explanation of the Big Bang cannot possibly be engaged because she is exhibiting no behaviours with which to demonstrate this. And students may well be conforming to expectations – just like a young Ashman playing along with being a anthropologist, or a child fiddling about with a toy – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are particularly interested in what is going on.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that progressive educators simply don’t like the idea of teachers imposing their will on students. But I think this theoretical, ostentatiously virtuous position is somewhat at odds with reality.

I have taught groups of students who really do want to learn but who, in the absence of strong teacher direction, will become distracted. This is because the pressures on students don’t end when a teacher abdicates responsibility. Other pressures take over which can be more malevolent; pressure from peers, pressure from bullies. Go into a badly managed inner-city classroom and you will see students arguing with other students, taking each others’ belongings, teasing. This is why most of the children I’ve ever met prefer the teacher to take charge.

And I don’t think successful progressive educators actually release control either. They’re just sneakier about it, manipulating peer pressure and teacher approval to obtain the desired results.

No, engagement is too woolly a concept to be of much use and it probably doesn’t work the way that people think.

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4 Comments on ““Engagement” is not a useful concept”

  1. David says:

    Of course, “engagement” is often used by the ed tech industry to push their products into the classroom. Here we get the nexus of progressive education and for-profit industry to eat away at limited educational resource funds. Here’s a fine example of ed tech/engagement propaganda: https://thejournal.com/articles/2013/04/16/the-6-key-drivers-of-student-engagement.aspx

  2. Karen W says:

    Are you familiar with Diana Senechal (author of Republic of Noise)? She writes about solitude and the need for quiet and time to think about things in schools and notes that sometimes engagement looks an awful lot like daydreaming (thinking things over) rather than noisy, busy activity.

  3. […] to this post, it was recently claimed on Twitter that “neo-trads” ignore the issue of engagement. I […]

  4. […] Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started teaching/we […]


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