Creating Engagement

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1 Principles for creating engagement

1.1 Activating prior knowledge

Learning is an active process of constructing knowledge and developing understanding. To aid this process, pupils make meaning by connecting new knowledge and concepts to ideas and knowledge they already possess. It is important, therefore, that teachers help pupils use what they already know to make sense of new knowledge. This can be done through looking at or handling objects, telling stories, drawing concept maps, referring to pupils’ experiences or getting pupils to imagine particular scenes. An advantage of this approach is that pupils’ misunderstandings are often revealed and so corrected.

1.2 Challenge

Challenge is about setting high expectations and then teaching to them so pupils surpass previous levels of achievement. Where learning is insufficiently challenging, pupils can lack stimulation and interest so their level of involvement quickly declines. This is true for all levels of ability. One way teachers create the appropriate level of challenge is by providing learning opportunities which are pitched to avoid, on the one hand, boring repetitive work and, on the other, tasks that are totally beyond pupils’ capability. Pupils with special educational needs, in particular, are sometimes provided with very low-level tasks that lack the appropriate stimulation and challenge. Being given the chance to strive to solve challenging problems and think through issues leads to cognitive development and higher achievement for all pupils.

1.3 Cooperative group work

When pupils work together on a common task they interpret given information, ask questions for clarification, speculate and give reasons. They share their knowledge, ideas and perspectives and arrive at a fuller understanding than they might have done working alone. When pupils work in this way, it exemplifies Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, where the assistance of peers helps the development of thought in the individual. The process of cooperative work has been described as ‘talking oneself into understanding’. (Further information about group work can be found in unit 10.)

1.4 Metacognition

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. The ability to stand back from a difficult task to consider how it should be done, to monitor one’s progress and priorities and to reflect on successes and weaknesses is critical in becoming a successful learner. Teachers need to give pupils opportunities to plan, monitor and reflect on their work so that they can engage with learning as a process. This is typically done by asking pupils to consider how they will tackle a task or problem or by getting them to reflect on how they have done a task (see unit 2).

1.5 Modes of representing information

The brain is forced to work hard when it has to convert information from one mode to another. This could be, for example, from text to diagrammatic form or from visual representation, such as film, to music (as in writing a score to accompany some silent film footage). Such work is demanding because the individual is being forced to think about and make sense of the original information. The same degree of mental work can also be required when transforming information within the same medium, for example by summarising a text (see also unit 19).

1.6 Scaffolds

Scaffolds are structures that guide and support thinking. Complex tasks such as problem solving and extended writing make great demands on the novice. There are too many things to do at once. Scaffolds help by focusing attention on one thing at a time and providing a prompt, thus reducing the demands on the pupil’s working memory. The pupil can then move on to the next part of the complex task. The intention is always that the support is temporary and that the pupil will progress to working independently over time (see also unit 14).

1.7 Deep and surface learning

Some pupils become good, motivated learners; others don’t – and many pupils behave differently in different subjects and with different teachers. These differences arise partly from what the learner brings to the classroom (in intelligence, background, prior knowledge, attitudes, skills and interests). They are also the result of what the learner experiences in the classroom. ‘Deep’ and ‘surface’ approaches to learning describe the extremes of learning experience. Deep learning is the consequence of teachers using strategies which accord with the principles of engagement described above (see unit 1).

Pupils are engaged in deep learning when

  • they are trying to understand and make sense of material;
  • they are relating ideas and information to previous knowledge and experience;
  • they are not accepting new information uncritically;
  • they are using organising principles to integrate ideas;
  • they are relating evidence to conclusions;
  • they are examining the logic of arguments.

When pupils are merely reproducing or memorising given facts and information; accepting ideas and information passively; not being required to look for principles or patterns or to reflect on goals and progress – then they are only engaged in surface learning. The role of the teacher is crucial in engaging pupils in constructive, deep learning.

Task 2 Working with the video 1 30 minutes

The grid below contains an analysis of the lesson shown in video sequence 11a. It identifies the key elements of the lesson

  • the techniques consciously planned into the lesson by the history teacher;
  • the teaching skills he employs to ensure that the strategies lead to learning gains for his pupils.

Read through the analysis in the grid below and then watch the video clip. Tick off the strategies in the left-hand column as you recognise them.

Technique Teaching skill Learning gains
Visual starter

Pupils are asked to generate questions about the mystery object shown and to offer ideas about what it might be.

Setting a challenge

Creating a two-part task for those who go beyond generating questions

Creating a positive climate, accepting all ideas, linking ideas to learning focus

Involves all pupils individually Activates prior learning Encourages speculation Creates an investment in the learning

Motivates pupils to make links and connections

Sharing learning objectives

Key questions are used as a means of sharing objectives.

Key words are displayed for reference throughout the lesson.

Clarifying the area of learning in language that pupils understand

Linking the objectives to key words

Using questioning to ensure shared understanding before moving on

Actively engages pupils in pursuit of the answers

Provides a measure of success

Defines learning outcomes, i.e. pupils should be able to answer the questions at the end of the lesson

Focuses learning


The trade triangle is simulated by asking pupils to move around the room to designated points as if they were products.

Creating an assessment opportunity; the teacher can see who has understood, but pupils are supported because they can confer with those who have not been given cards Challenges selected pupils to demonstrate their understanding

Creates new links and connections through physical re-creation of an abstract concept (trade triangle)


Pupils are asked to sequence a series of pictures related to the slave trade – with or without using captions as directed by the teacher.

Careful planning of the task; the teacher knows both the benefits and limitations of the task (it is ‘basic’); he plans for differentiation and challenge

Intervention using questioning to extend thinking

Begins to link one sequence of causation with another (the trade triangle with the capturing of slaves)
Focused video sequence

Pupils are asked to look for new pieces of information and note them on blank caption cards.

Using the video to build on the sequencing task; taking pupils beyond the ‘basic’ to the more complex Develops a more complex model (the sequence of causation related to capturing and trading of slaves)

Develops a personal relationship to the area of learning; increases interest and motivation

Final plenary*

Pupils are asked to present an aspect of their learning to the whole class using the OHP.

Learning is summarised and linked back to the key questions.

Creating an assessment opportunity biased consciously towards those who are orally confident

Sharing learning gains

Consolidates learning

Pupils share understanding

Pupils gain confidence in expressing ideas

Pupils see what they have learned|

*Note: This teacher uses mini-plenaries throughout the lesson for a number of purposes.

The pace and length of these vary according to purpose. However, each contributes to making overall links and connections and to consolidation and extension, leading to the next stage in the learning.

1.7.1 Task 3 Working with the video 2 30 minutes

Now watch video sequence 11a again. This time focus on the third column and the learning gains being made by the pupils as an outcome of the techniques and the teaching skills being employed.

Underline the learning gains as you identify them in the video. It is a good idea to pause the tape as you watch, to give yourself thinking time.