Dipsticks: It all depends on what you mean by ‘engagement’
Yesterday I wrote a post – Does Engagement Actually Matter? – detailing some very interesting findings on the links between intrinsic motivation, enjoyment and attainment. It turns out that the more motivated you are and the more you enjoy learning the less likely you are to achieve. Who knew?
The report about which I was writing sets out its terms thus:
Student engagement refers to the intensity with which students apply themselves to learning in school. Traits such as motivation, enjoyment, and curiosity—characteristics that have interested researchers for a long time—have been joined recently by new terms such as, “grit,” which now approaches cliché status.
So it should be clear that by ‘engagement’ what was meant was a combination of motivation, enjoyment, curiosity and grit. In my post I suggested that ‘thinking hard’ was more likely to lead to learning than these qualities only for several commenters to point out that surely ‘thinking hard’ actually is engagement. Aha! Gotcha! Well, if you’re going to argue that engagement doesn’t mean motivation, enjoyment or curiosity, and instead means thinking hard about subject content then I’m happy to agree with you. But if instead you’re conveniently switching definitions to make ‘engagement’ mean whatever you want it to mean in whatever circumstance you wish to use the word then I’m not interested.
That notions of motivation and enjoyment continue to dominate education thinking isn’t really up for debate. Just yesterday the highly popular Twitter feed @edutopia posted this:
Hitting the formative assessment jackpot turns out to be unfettered access to a cornucopia of tired gimmickry and toothless guff. This associated post points out that conducting formative assessment in any way other than pen and paper tests should be rebranded ‘alternative assessment’:
Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car — hence the name “dipsticks.” They’re especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in under a minute.
I despair. The downloadable pdf, 53 Ways to Check for Understanding includes such beauties as:
17. Advertisement • Create an ad, with visuals and text, for the newly learned concept.
20. Collage • Create a collage around the lesson’s themes. Explain your choices in one paragraph.
All of the techniques – even the ones that aren’t quite so obviously risible – seem to operate under two assumptions:
- You can see learning. I’ve written extensively about why this is a misconception but do understand that this has yet to filter into the mainstream of educational thinking, but really, ignorance is no real defense.
- Learning must be enjoyable. These activities are predicated on the idea that for recalcitrant students to learn anything they must be led by the nose to a muddy trough and tricked into drinking.
Now maybe learning really must be enjoyable. Maybe not. We can debate the truth of this ad nauseum. But to argue that the majority of teachers and education professionals understand ‘engagement’ to mean something other than making collages and adverts is disingenuous at best.