Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

I spent a weekend earlier this month taking an Instructional Coaching course. The trainer took us through their coaching model on the first day and then came to apply this to developing classroom practice and improving outcomes on the second. To illustrate the effectiveness of the approach, the metric chosen in their video example was of student engagement. I immediately thought back to Coe’s Poor Proxies for Learning paper and what could easily be observed but was not really about learning. In particular, the ones about students being busy with lots of work being done and students being engaged, interested and motivated- without actually learning anything. So, I challenged the speaker on engagement being a valid indicator of learning and therefore it’s suitability by which to judge the success of the coaching intervention. He responded by asserting his belief that engagement and motivation were valid, and would lead to good learning. While I agree that motivation and engagement are (perhaps) vital elements in learning, it is right to question what the students are motivated to do. That is, if they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or to focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge, then the whole enterprise is surely a waste of time? I did go back and forth a little, but settled on having made my point.

This did prompt me to go back and re-visit some of these learning proxies and the whole idea of school improvement in general and in particular how we could (properly) evaluate and measure teaching quality. I’m quite interested in the whole idea that ‘effectiveness’ measures (whatever they are) can be causally attributed to a school or teacher without any real evidence or evaluation- they are accepted as truisms. As I mentioned above, the metrics chosen seem to not be about learning. When I talk to colleagues about particular strategies or techniques that they using to give improvements, what they are actually doing differs to anothers interpretation quite considerably: they both have the same label but are actually quite different things. I do think that it comes back to a shared idea of what learning actually is, for me this is best summarized by Graham Nuthall’s work (The Hidden Lives of Learners- 2007)

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3 responses to “Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

  1. I have a similar issue with criticisms of ‘passive’ learners. Being still and silent is actually the state necessary for deep thought. Indeed, the brain will bring the body to a halt in order to direct its resources towards thinking (picture the pacing detective who repeatedly pauses to consider thoughts that occur to him). The problem is that it is not possible to observe whether the inactivity is a sign of deep thought or another brain activity such as day dreaming, worrying about something or other ‘off task’ processing.

  2. Hi- thanks for your comment… yes, quite agree- you can’t see learning only (mostly) poor proxies. Puzzling over tricky things sounds like good learning!I wrote a little about observations in my last post.

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