Monday, May 4, 2015

More Than Engagment

Image by escolaepai,

Most days in sixth grade Social Studies were strikingly monotonous. We sat in rows, opened up our thick textbooks, took notes, and answered the review questions at the end of a section. Occasionally, we read a portion of a document out loud, and on good days the teacher posed an interesting question to spark discussion. I’m guessing many of you can visualize my sixth grade Social Studies class perfectly. It was probably yours as well. 

Alas, the day before a big test everything changed. My teacher, Ms. Roberts, stepped beyond her wooden podium, sat on a stool, and kicked off a period of “candy questions”. There was nothing complex or innovative about candy questions, but boy did we get excited. Ms. Roberts had a list of test questions, all simple recall and memorized fact based knowledge. 

“What was the nickname for Northerners in The Civil War?” 


“What was the first battle of The Civil War?” 

Fort Sumter 

We waited impatiently for the next question. We raised our hand quickly and hoped Ms. Roberts would pick us. If you got the question right, Ms. Roberts threw a piece of candy at you. Throwing in class? Candy in class? Eating in class? Sign me up! 

Image from Shirley,

Everyone was on task. Everyone was paying attention. Everyone was literally on the edge of their seat. Everyone was engaged. What else could a teacher ask for? 

A few years ago I would have said nothing. An engaged class was a good class. If you can engage students everything else will fall into line. 

But there is more than engagement. 

Recently, I have been to quite a few ed tech conferences and professional developments. Beside data, engagement is what many companies are selling. Engagement. Engagement. Engagement. Get your engagement here! Use our product ‘X’ to engage your students. Use product “Y” to excite kids into learning. 

There is a whole line of products devoted to making Ms. Robert’s “candy questions” available online. Nowadays, you can post a set of questions and the whole class can answer them via their devices. Students get points or characters instead of candy. Maybe if they are lucky, they can even earn a badge. This is way fun, but has much really changed? 

There is more than engagement. 

My point here is not to bash ed tech products or programs. I know how hard entrepreneurs and engineers work to develop ed tech applications. Their heart is in the right place. My point here is that classrooms need to go beyond engagement. Engagement is a super duper start, it can be a great motivator, but it does not automatically lead to deep learning. Think about Trivia Crack for example. High engagement for sure, but there isn’t much more going on than repeating and memorizing facts. Trivia Crack is great to pass the time and to drill a few caveats of knowledge into one’s brain. Trivia Crack is not great to build the type of skills students need and crave. Trivia Crack does not teach one how to learn, how to ask questions, how to develop passions, how to solve problems. Trivia Crack and candy questions train kids to respond to stimuli, not to take ownership of their own learning.

There is more than engagement. 

So, so much more. 

Image from Pezibear,

There is a time and place for pure engagement, just as I suppose there was a place for Ms. Roberts’s candy questions. On the flip side, this type of engagement is not necessarily new or innovative. Teachers have always found ways to engage students into memorizing facts and bits of knowledge. In fact, we have a whole system of rewards and punishments designed to try and engage students into recalling as much information as possible. 

I think students deserve more than engagement. They deserve purpose, authenticity, and autonomy. They deserve work that matters. They deserve deep learning that sparks passion and genuine, intrinsic motivation. We can and should ask for more than engagement. We can do better than “candy questions” on a screen. 

If you enjoyed this post it would mean the world to me if you pressed the recommend button below and shared it on social media. I’ll give you candy…

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