What exactly is student engagement? I recently read a comment from a teacher on an Internet bulletin board. He said that his students seemed to be bored, and after talking with them, he realized that they were tired of just sitting and listening. He said they wanted to be more involved in their learning. I was excited to read further. The teacher said he decided then to “change how I teach, so now I make sure I do one activity each month with my class.” How sad. That means 19 days each month of class with no activities. Unfortunately, that describes many classrooms today.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place in teaching and learning for lectures and explanations and teacher-led discussions. But somehow, many teachers fall into the trap of believing that lecturing at or explaining to works. Perhaps it comes from our own experiences. Many of our teachers taught that way; it’s what we saw most of the time. But how many of those teachers were outstanding or inspiring educators? Not many. I had several great teachers, and none of them taught like that. What I do remember is that the older I got, the more I was talked at.
Where did that idea come from—the idea that as children grow up, they should be less involved in their own learning? Let’s be clear on some basic points:
§ Although kids can be engaged in reading, reading the textbook or the worksheet and answering questions is not necessarily engaging.
§ Although kids can be engaged in listening, most of what happens during a lecture isn’t engagement.
§ Although kids working together in small groups can be engaging, kids placed in groups to read silently and answer a question isn’t. Activities in groups where one or two students do the work aren’t engagement. Small groups don’t guarantee engagement just like large groups don’t automatically mean disengagement.
So, what does it mean to be engaged in learning? In brief, it really boils down to what degree students are involved in and participating in the learning process. So, if I’m actively listening to a discussion, possibly writing down things to help me remember key points, I’m engaged. But if I’m really thinking about the latest video game and I’m nodding so you think I’m paying attention, then I’m not. It is that simple. Of course, the complexity is dealing with it.