Aspects Of Engagement

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1 Aspects of engagement

When we speak of pupils being engaged, we usually mean that they appear interested, work hard and behave well. These are the surface signs of very important mental processes. However, there is a danger that pupils will be encouraged simply to work hard and behave well, but miss out on important processes that generate understanding. It is vital to realise that physical activity, such as performing a science experiment or drawing a poster, is not the same as mental effort or engagement. Conversely, good teacher explanations, with appropriate examples and structuring, will produce mental engagement and understanding.

Understanding is a primary goal of education. Understanding is best thought of as having a representation or model in the mind that corresponds to the situation or phenomenon being encountered. Engagement is about helping pupils to develop these mental models; it is through such structures that they construct understanding.

Pupil engagement depends on two complementary conditions, both of which rely on the skills of the teacher

  • the provision of an appropriate climate which enables pupils to take full advantage of the knowledge and experiences being presented to them;
  • the use of a variety of strategies and approaches that allow pupils to construct their own learning.

Pupils are more likely to be engaged in their learning when the teacher provides opportunities for them to construct solutions, learning or answers that they can back up with plausible reasons. The notion of constructing solutions is an important one and it may be helpful to expand it a little.

Many activities do not require pupils to construct answers, for example comprehension exercises in which they read a passage and have to answer questions but do not need to process the text. In a simple example, pupils might read some text and then be asked the question: ‘Where did Harold position his troops at the Battle of Hastings?’ Pupils will answer ‘He positioned his troops at the top of a hill’ because that is exactly what is written in the text. However, unless there are supplementary questions, the pupils will gain no understanding of why the troops were placed there. You can test your ability to process text without understanding by looking at the following sentence

The Glombots, who looked durly and lurkish, were fond of wooning, which they usually did in the grebble.

You, and pupils, could answer questions such as ‘What did the Glombots look like?’, ‘What were they fond of doing?’ and ‘Where did they like to do it?’ without any need to engage actively with the text.

1.1 Task 1 Engaging with the research 15 minutes

Constructing learning has a sound basis in accepted theory. Read the overview of constructivist theory in the summary of research on pages 20–21.

Think about some recent lessons you have taught. To what extent did these lessons give the pupils an active role in constructing their learning? Having considered the research and the information in this unit so far, can you think of other activities you could usefully have included?

To effect engagement, teachers not only have to provide pupils with the opportunity to construct their learning, they also have to draw on other aspects of their skills, in particular

  • the effective use of modelling, questioning and explaining (these issues are addressed in units 6, 7 and 8 respectively);
  • providing opportunities for collaborative learning and thinking together (these issues are addressed in unit 10);
  • structuring learning carefully to maintain the focus on the learning objectives and to help pupils process new ideas, identify patterns, apply knowledge independently and reflect on their learning (structuring learning is addressed in unit 1 and unit 2).