April 17, 2011

Learning Futures: How to engage students

Engagement
These days technology is often the last thing I'd recommend schools bother with when trying to engage students. There's plenty else we can invest time in before technology will achieve even a fraction of what it can in an engaged school. And now a set of action research reports in the UK is showing the path many schools might wish to take.

I'm working with several primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools at the moment in England, Australia and the States. All of them face the same daily and long-term strategic challenge: students have never been so disengaged. Many have seen technology as a principal hook to reverse this disengagement, which is why they get in touch with us, but quickly on my initial visits to schools I'm keen to point out the other steps that we need to get through before technology will add what it could do. Otherwise, I'm just a tools salesman, selling tools that the owners don't know how to harness.

The journey is a complex one, and one that, in my opinion for what it's worth, most of the 'big' eduction commentators in North America still fail to recognise. I've complained numerous times before about the fetichisation of 'tools' and 'edtech' by those who work with and in schools where other elements of the teaching and learning process clearly deserve fetichisation first.

What are these elements?

A unique and undervalued research project based in the UK, with partners in the US (including High Tech High), is discovering, analysing and sharing those elements through its regular pamphlets, blog and, above all, grounded practice across nearly 50 schools.

It's our job to help scale this ambition to other schools around the world.

Engaging-schools-cover Learning Futures' The Engaging School: principles and practices has some choice quotes amongst the practical steps school leaders might take to begin turning this apparent tide of disengagement. Here are my favourites:

The irony, for commentators like Alfie Kohn, is that invariably, “when interest appears, achievement usually follows” (2000, p. 128).

It is almost as though we have accepted the inevitability of learning as a cold shower: you’re not expected to enjoy it, but it will do you good.
...
We have recently seen a large number of students becoming disengaged achievers, performing well academically, keeping out of trouble, but rejecting further and higher education.

A second problem with the traditional model of engagement stems from its predominantly instrumental applications: engagement as a vehicle to improve student performance or discipline within school. Inevitably, such a mindset constrains success indicators within a compliance model. Students are deemed to be engaged, for example, when/if they:
    •    attend regularly
    •    conform to behavioural norms
    •    complete work in the manner requested and on time
    •    are ‘on-task’
    •    respond to questioning
If we have greater aspirations for students—beyond compliance and toward a commitment to lifelong learning—then the conventional concept of engagement is inadequate.
...
While project-based learning and activities that go beyond school can be liberating for staff and students, it is important that activities incorporate a sense of bounded freedom—that students are given a clear set of guidelines, procedures or protocols within which they can make choices. As one Year 9 student put it: “I’d like to have a little bit more of a say, but...I think you need the teacher there to sort of guide you.”

Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. It is rare, however, to see such depth of absorption in school-based work. Munns and colleagues (2006) at the University of Western Sydney (2006) have quantified the difference as being in-task, not just on-task. Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to continue beyond the end of a lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had ended—what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described as being in ‘‘flow’’.

Picture of engaged gamer from Mr Toledano.

Comments

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Interesting points about being 'in task'... I noted this in my GLOW days, in fact, one of the comments from our students was along the lines of.. " when the lesson is boring, you are thinking about when the bell is going to go, but in GLOW lessons, you are thinking about what you are doing". I guess this illustrates your point, and maybe rather than indicating success for the tech, it's as John Connell once said to me, it's maybe more to do with good teaching, or lesson design, or pedagogy intersecting with a more heutagogical approach ?

bravo Ewan.
i love your description of what we consider engagement to be:
attend regularly
conform to behavioural norms
complete work in the manner requested and on time
are ‘on-task’
respond to questioning

how did we ever think that would be alluring.. to anyone..

Tech isn't always the problem or the solution.

If you want to stop kids from playing video games, make then into a mandatory class with an indifferent teacher.

Project based work, with or without tech, that allows students to construct knowledge will work well for many. Collaborative works for others. etc.etc.

However, tech allows us to leverage reusable education objects for learner differentiation and offer choices for students to vary their educational diet. "the solution" that everyone seems to be looking for might be a lot of small solutions. The standardized test craze in the states has missed the step of standardizing students first... which is probably not terribly engaging.

Tech is a tool to amplify what one does. A top down approach will be more top down, and a bottom up can be more bottom up. Top down is where the money is, bottom up where the engagement is.

Can't blame tools. A computer only does what you tell it to, not what you want it to.

Very helpful description keep sharing

However, tech allows us to leverage reusable education objects for learner differentiation and offer choices for students to vary their educational diet. "the solution" that everyone seems to be looking for might be a lot of small solutions. The standardized test craze in the states has missed the step of standardizing students first... which is probably not terribly engaging.

totally fascinating especially when it comes to engaging future students.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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