I am writing this as we are in the middle of the global Covid-19 pandemic. This has shut schools across the globe, leaving most children to be taught remotely. I have blogged before about how I have used Online Live Teaching in this situation.
But one of the things that seems to be on everybody's mind is how do we get students to engage in this type of teaching. Without having students in the class it is much more difficult to judge engagement, and for some it is even difficult to ensure they are present and doing the work.
This raises the debate over what we actually mean when we talk about engaging students. As a younger teacher, I firmly fell into the camp of believing that lessons should be fun in order to motivate students to be engaged in lessons. I would spend hours designing activities, be it card sorts, bingos or jigsaw activities to keep the students busy and active throughout the lesson. My thinking behind this was that if they were kept busy, then they would be engaged in the lesson.
Well, if I am being honest, I do not really mean "my thinking" in that last sentence. I mean "I was told/led to believe". Not necessarily directly, but certainly through the types of activities we were shown in my teacher training. These were the activities that were modelled to us, and so these were the types of activities that we employed in our teaching. And it was all about that holy grail of education: student engagement.
For those first few years of my career my job was to engage the students in the lesson, usually by making it fun in some way. Perhaps that was through the way I "performed", or through the activities I prepared. But my main concern was that students enjoyed lessons.
But now I see things differently.
I still believe in engagement. We know from plenty of research that it is vital that students are engaged with the learning in order to learn the material (for example, check out MARGE by Shimamura). But there is a subtle but important difference in the language. You may not have noticed it.
At the start of this post I referred to students being engaged in the lesson. Now I am saying that students are engaged with the learning.
And that is the crux of the issue when it comes to discussing engagement. Is our job to create engaging (fun) lessons? Or is it to make the content that students need to learn engaging? These are very different things. You could argue that the former is easier (though the workload was killer!) in that it requires far less thought on everybody's part. But again, that is the problem. As Willingham says, "memory is the residue of thought", and if we want students to remember things, we have to get them to think deeply about those things. And interestingly, this normally piques their interest and gets them engaged in the lesson.
So in this time of remote teaching when we are all concerned about keeping students engaged in their school work, think about this: do you want students to have fun, or do you want them to learn something? If it is the latter, perhaps you would be better off thinking hard about the content you want them to know, and, more importantly, how you can get the students to think really hard about it. Engage them in the learning, and they will be engaged in the lesson.
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I am a maths teacher looking to share good ideas for use in the classroom, with a current interest in integrating educational research into my practice.