We’ve probably all heard a colleague say something like, “I did a great activity today. It worked well. The kids were really engaged.” We even have professional development based on this premise: A consultant will come in to a school and promote a drama-based activity or project-based learning and everyone will conclude how effective it is because the students are really engaged.
I think the term ‘engagement’ has two meanings when people use it in this way. The first is that students are motivated by the activity and the second is that they are actively doing something. Perhaps the latter is seen to imply to the former because, in many classrooms, full participation in the activity might be optional.
Professor Robert Coe claims that engagement is a poor proxy for learning.
It is important to understand what ‘poor proxy’ means. It doesn’t mean that engagement is undesirable or in conflict with learning. Rather, learning is invisible. It’s not something that we can directly observe. So if we want to conclude that learning has taken place then we look for a proxy. A good proxy might be something like a delayed test. If students score well then we can infer that learning has taken place. Coe is claiming that engagement is a poor proxy.
This is quite reasonable. We can imagine students busily and enthusiastically doing stuff but learning little; or at least learning little of what is intended. For instance, a Macbeth diorama could engage students for hours without improving their ability to analyse the play.
We can also imagine students staring pretty blankly while a teacher talks and yet learning loads. Certainly, the mind has to be active for learning to take place but this doesn’t mean that the body has to be physically doing something. Richard Mayer calls the conflation of the two the, ‘constructivist teaching fallacy‘.
So why has Coe’s perfectly sensible suggestion provoked so much argument on Twitter recently?
Let’s take another of Coe’s poor proxies: classroom is ordered, calm, under control. I view an orderly classroom as highly desirable. I think that, in many cases, it is a necessary prerequisite for learning to occur. But I would not argue that we can infer from an orderly classroom that learning is taking place. Students could be behaving very well and learning little. Conversely, it is quite possible for students to be learning whilst some members of the class are misbehaving.
In my first year of teaching I had a difficult Year 10 science class for 80 minutes on a Friday afternoon. If we worked hard for the first 40 minutes I let the students research a science topic in the computer room for the last 40 minutes. They learnt little science from this research but many teachers dropped by and commented on how well behaved the students were.
I think that the problem people have with Coe’s analysis is that much of the evaluation of educational innovations never gets past the question of whether students are engaged. If this engagement leads to better learning then we could and should use better proxies to measure this learning. If a consultant comes in to your school and tries to sell you engagement then the professional response should be to ask for something more.