Saturday, February 18, 2012

What does engagement look like?

The first post in this series suggests that teachers must practice caution when designing engaging lessons. Disempowerment and distraction are just two potential problems that may result from teachers trying to own the responsibility of student engagement. Another problem is distorting what engagement looks like. Addressing this last problem is the focus of this post.

I begin nearly all of my college courses with a workshop that asks, "How do we stay engaged?" The activity is based on the rubric shown on the right. My wife developed this rubric with her first-graders to help them to monitor their engagement during independent reading time. The class brainstormed the ideas of what different levels of reading engagement might look like and Kathy wrote them down. If during independent reading time a child is not engaged with their reading, then all Kathy has to do is ask the child where he is on the rubric and what he needs to do to re-engage. In most instances, this works extremely well. I figured that if first-graders could do this, then so could college students.

The phases of the workshop look like this:
  • Schema Activation Turn and Talk: What engagement does and does not look like.
  • Focus Setting Expectations
    • History of Rubrics (providing direction)
    • Kathy's example
  • Activity Group Work: Creating Engagement Rubric Rough Draft
  • Reflection Gallery Walk
    • Use sticky notes to identify "likes"
    • Develop a personal engagement rubric

Sometimes these rubrics confuse engagement with compliance. This is related to their distorted thinking about what it means to be engaged. An example that comes up often is texting in class. Student often want to put "texting" in the frowny face category because it means that the person "isn't doing what they should be doing." I understand their rationale and accept that typically it is an example of being unengaged, but I warn them that they need to be careful judging based solely on appearances.  What if the person is texting to someone about the awesome activity that we just did? Maybe it fits perfectly with an upcoming project they are doing and the person was so excited they could not wait to share it. I explain that I do this all the time using Twitter at conferences - my tweets become my notes that I am willing to share with anyone who wants them.

The idea that communicating our excitement about something we are learning represents a high level of engagement is reflected in the work of Morgan and Saxton (beginning on page 27). I was first introduced to their Taxonomy of Personal Engagement through Jeff Wilhelm's 2007 book, Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry. He modified the Taxonomy in order to develop the Engagement Continuum shown below.
For students who have a hard time separating compliance and engagement, this provides a template for thinking about what pure engagement might look like. I will describe ways I use this continuum to support students taking responsibility for their own engagement in the next post. 

But what does engagement look like to us as teachers? Can we distinguish between compliance and engagement? I must admit that it has been a bit of a struggle for me as I try to put theory into practice. My colleague, John Golden, suggested that we (including you, dear reader) might collaborate to design an engagement rubric from the perspective of teachers. Consequently, I put together this google document (here) that we can work on together. I hope that you are engaged enough with this topic that you are willing to share your ideas. Thank you in advance for your participation.


  1. I strongly believe engagement and compliance are complementary to each other, and that a comfortable equilibrium should be struck between them. Peace.

  2. Please say more about how you see compliance and engagement as complementary. Perhaps we need to gain a "taken-as-shared-meaning" of compliance. For me, compliance looks like the students doing what the teacher tell them to do. It is possible that the task also happens to be engaging to the student (she would do it anyways) but I am unclear as to how compliance supports this. In fact, it seems to me that it is more likely to inhibit it.

    Now if we are talking about the need for a mutually respectful and trusting relationship between teacher and students, then I can see how this can support engagement. A student who trusts a teacher is more likely to give something a try suggested by the teacher and therefore be open to engagement with the task. Is this what you are talking about, or am I missing something?

    1. I've never really thought about the difference between engagement and compliance, but I am now very intrigued. I agree, to me compliance seems to inhibit the idea of a free and personally driven engagement in learning. When I think of the word compliance, I think of the idea of student-as-robot, with a teacher who is using his/her position of authority to make demands, rather than a Dewey-like teacher who is starting with the knowledge of the student and looking for ways to engage students in learning experiences that are meaningful to the students.

      I love the rubric activity. It seems so valuable for preservice teachers to be looking for "evidence" of their students' engagement, since students' engagement is within their realm of influence as teachers, and so important for them to want to influence.

      When you ask us to contribute to the collaborative rubric, "from the perpective of teachers", you mean from OUR perspective as teachers, right?

    2. Having these preservice teachers focus on their own engagement hopefully helps them to take more responsibility for their learning and prepares them as future teachers to support their students. I've heard it said that Vygotsky's theory essentially says that learning is a process of moving from close to home (concrete experience) to new neighborhoods (more abstract ideas). This activity is intended to focus on my students' own front yard.

      Yes, the collaborative rubric is intended for teachers to identify our perspective of engagement. I want us to make our thinking visible and available for examination. Are we expecting engagement or compliance?

  3. Thought you might enjoy some work we did on engagement in elearning assets.

    Our focus is not young students, but the points are relevant, I hope.

  4. You wrote: "I will describe ways I use this continuum to support students taking responsibility for their own engagement in the next post."

    Will that be before next Tuesday? I kinda need it.

    (clearly I liked the post and want more - and my students are all over the map with engagement - thanks for helping!)

  5. Wow, compliance meaning could also be discerning the learning terrain that the teacher is working with - the 'paths' people are on - and contributing to it while learning.
    I have been in that situation where I was engaged and madly taking notes about a class on the computer, and the instructor assumed I was distracted for pretty much the whole semester (I was observing the course; I suppose I was supposed to sit with hands folded, raptly gazing...)
    I love the idea of having students analyze their engagement... many haven't ever considered taking that active role. Yes, if "compliance" means "finish this assignment and hand it in," it contributes to dead end passivity. When compliance includes "explore this stuff and let's see how we can use it" (think teachers being 'compliant' with the school's principles and principals) then it's powerful...

  6. Phil Schlechty describes qualites of engaging work in his book, Working on the work. he defines those as:
    Personal response
    Clearly modeled expectations
    Emotional and intellectual safety
    Learning with others
    Sense of audience
    Novelty or variety

    He also defines levels of engagement and compliance is below true engagement.

    I appreciate how you get your kids to realize they are describing compliance rather than engagement.