Engagement, behaviour and the things in life that are worth doing

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In an article in today’s edition of The Australian, Tania Apsland, president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, the peak body representing university education faculties, makes the comment that, “If you can get students engaged in learning and they love learning, then discipline problems tend to be minimised.”

I did not know that Apsland was going to make this comment when I offered my own comment in the same piece: “This idea that if you provide an engaging lesson that kids will be ­engaged and behave, it’s complete nonsense.”

At least it proves that I was not erecting a straw man.

So what is this disagreement about?

In a literal sense, if students are ‘engaged in learning’ then they are unlikely to be misbehaving because it is difficult to do both of these things at the same time. However, I think most would take an additional implication from Aplsand’s comment. It seems to be implying that a teacher’s job is to ‘engage’ students. This is a vague term, but it is often operationalised as providing interesting or fun lessons or drawing kids in with an exciting hook.

Such an approach will not fix behaviour problems. For a start, teachers are not the only agents who affect behaviour. Students are often influenced by a range of factors outside the classroom. By placing all of the responsibility on teachers and their planning, we risk burning out teachers, particularly new ones.

And students will not know how engaging the work is until they’ve started working on it. You may have the potential to really enjoy swimming, but you may refuse to get into the water. This is why schools need robust behaviour systems that include strong strategies, routines and policies that make it the norm for students to listen to the teacher and attempt the tasks they are set. The ability for students to defer gratification in this way with an eye to a greater, long term goal, is one that will set them up well for life in the adult world and they need our help to do this.

Finally, the idea of engagement first might put the cart before the horse. It is likely that motivation and achievement have a reciprocal relationship with a sense of achievement also leading to future motivation. And this ‘intrinsic interest’ may have a longer term impact than the ephemeral ‘situational interest’ produced by a fun game used to hook students into a lesson.

This is not an argument for intentionally boring lessons. We should make them as interesting as we can. However, we need to acknowledge that the kind of deliberate practice that is likely to be needed to gain expertise in an academic subject includes an element of hard-work and drudgery, as does everything else worth doing in life.

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9 thoughts on “Engagement, behaviour and the things in life that are worth doing

  1. Philip Crooks says:

    I remember Kenneth Williams saying that theatre critics are like eunuchs in a harem they see a performance every night but cannot do it themselves. I think the same applies to so called academics in education. I still maintain that all those who lecture in education should have to teach,not in a leafy green school but in a tough hard to staff,school , for two years every seven years so they can put all their ideas into practice. I despair at the foolishness of these academics or really refugees from teaching.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Sadly, this is never going to happen. At all levels, education is littered with refugees from teaching who have salvaged their careers by getting post-graduate degrees in education, where their belief in ‘engagement’ is reinforced. SLT in rough schools usually manage to avoid teaching the worse sets and waste the time of other teachers with INSET on ‘engagement’. Because they have little or no experience of work outside education, they simply can’t grasp that a very real and costly ‘exclusion’ is the normal consequence of unruly behaviour.

    • That’s a brilliant idea Philip. I’ve always thought that Ofsted inspectors should be made to demonstrate their effectiveness, perhaps by being tied to schools that are Good or Requires Improvement and made to be accountable as part of the improvement process. Just a thought.

  2. For me, the issue comes down to our definition of engagement. For me, engagement means to be thinking hard about what is to be learned. Clearly, if that is happening, then children will not misbehave. But if the phrase “get children engaged” means the teacher has to be responsible for this then it is not possible! We can’t “get children to think” any more than we can make the horse drink. The responsibility to engage is the child’s, not the teacher’s. That does not mean we should not try to make the lesson interesting, have a good relationship with children in our class, Let this academic define engagement first, otherwise, it is tautology or nonsense.

  3. David Zyngier says:

    Really Greg it’s not an either or proposition. And once again you posit anothers point of view or definition that you ascribe to them only to refute it. Or intentionally set up the old straw man again. Read Schlechty or Newman if you want to understand student engagement. I did a phd on it!

  4. I like your swimming analogy. Same with bicycle riding. Some kids won’t want to engage until they try it.

    You might enjoy this youtube item

    He makes the point that a lot of our lives must be boring. If everything is exciting then we acclimatize and need something above this norm for it to excite us. I know there is a fine difference between engaging and exciting but I think those asking for engagement are often asking for excitement. After all someone swimming laps or practicing scales maybe fully engaged in something that is quite boring and that is not what people seem to be asking for.

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