Buzz words and acronyms abound in education. PBIS, RTI, Differentiation, Standards, Assessment, PLC’s, and the list goes on and on. One of the latest buzz words getting a lot of airtime is Engagement. Teachers are asked to assess student engagement regularly. Administrators profess a desire to evaluate student engagement. Yet, does anybody actually know what student engagement looks like? What is it, really?
I have heard some people describe student engagement as student activity. Others have described it as students displaying happiness for learning. If you were to ask ten different teachers to describe what student engagement looks like in their rooms the odds are you would get ten different responses. The same is probably true if you were to ask building administrators, the very people charged with evaluating teachers on whether or not student engagement is evident in teachers’ classrooms. What is needed is a consistent definition, a consistent measurement so that consistent feedback can be given and teachers everywhere, working to increase student engagement, an agreed upon Best Practice, can actually know what they are working towards.
Try to think about it through this fairly simple analogy. If you are married, what did it mean when you “got engaged”? If you are currently single or dating a significant other, what will it mean to you to “get engaged”? Is getting engaged the same thing as getting married? Is it the same thing as dating? What does it mean?
I have been married for 18 years. I was engaged for approximately a year and a half prior to that. I dated the woman who is now my wife for about a year and a half before that. There are three distinct eras that I can identify in my relationship with her. When we were dating, I did not wake up every morning and ask myself whether or not I was happy in my relationship and whether I wanted to continue with it. I simply went through the motions. She and I would spend time together, we got to know each other, and we began to understand each other on a deeper level. Eventually we reached a point where we both knew it was decision time. Were we at the place where we were willing to make a commitment that was not longer contingent on our feelings? Were we willing to say that we promised to make things work, to continue to learn and grow together, even if some mornings we woke up and we were not happy or even liking each other? When we decided this was the type of commitment we were ready for, we decided to get engaged.
The engagement lasted just long enough for us to get all of our proverbial ducks in a row. We made sure we both had jobs lined up, that we would have a house to live in, and that the wedding ceremony was all set up. The wedding was a symbolic gesture where we were able to publicly share all we had previously committed to. Eighteen years later, now that we are married, we are able to take all we learned previously, and all that we continue to learn, and apply it in new and more meaningful ways.
Dating is about getting to know someone more and more. Engagement is all about making a commitment. A wedding is all about putting that commitment on display. In a classroom, the initial superficial learning that occurs on a topic is the equivalent of dating. It is a chance to simply explore an unknown topic in limited ways. This introductory learning is a necessary step that must occur before a greater commitment can occur. It is not fair to assume that an engagement should occur before dating has occurred. In a classroom students may not be engaged unless they have had an introduction to learning. At some point though students must make a commitment. They must become engaged. This means that they show an evidence to learn no matter what else gets in the way. Students should be showing a willingness to apply the knowledge they learned while dating and show a commitment to grow. They should do this in spite of how they feel. They should do this in spite of the activity. They show this by getting all of their ducks in a row before the big day, the point of no return. To throw more academic jargon into this, there will be a lot of formative assessment taking place if students are truly engaged. During an engagement a couple has the chance to learn how to overcome obstacles, how to endure, and how to plan for future success. Once they get married, they have entered a legally binding contract that says they know how to make it work. In the classroom this may be the moment when a summative assessment is given. This may be a public performance, a paper and pencil test, or any other assessment trick used by a teacher to publicly share what has been learned as a result of their engagement.
So what is the best way to assess whether or not students are engaged? It goes way beyond looking for smiles or movement. It goes beyond looking at the activities or assignments. True engagement is a commitment to learning. If students are engaged they are reluctant to leave the classroom. They are not absent. Students are talking about the subject matter in the hallways and at home. The best way to determine whether or not students are engaged is to test their commitment to learn.
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