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:

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 11.06.07

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


25 Responses to Dipsticks: It all depends on what you mean by ‘engagement’

  1. I completely agree with you that ‘engagement’ is used synonymously with – basically – fun, and I’m right behind you in trying to push against this (as I hope you saw in my blog posts).

    I am still keen however to try to rescue the word for purer use, as in my experience of trying to talk teachers out of this malaise, if I say “it’s not all about fun” they will happily agree with me, whereas, if I say “it’s not all about engagement” they get more defensive. The word “engagement” gives a respectability to “enjoyment” in people’s minds which I’m keen to try to put a wedge between.

    Is this not worth fighting for…?

  2. I was very interested in your article on engagement. I agree that fun is not synonymous with learning, but it does seem to have become synonymous with engagement.However, enjoyable assessment activities do have value, particularly when endeavouring to ‘engage’ a reluctant learner and demonstrate to the student that they are able to learn. As the first step in developing meta-cognitive awareness and a student’s preparedness for learning harder skills and knowledge, I do not think we should immediately dismiss ‘engaging’ assessment strategies for disaffected or unconfident learners just because they are deemed ‘fun’.

    • David Didau says:

      As I spelt out in the blog, I’m not just dismissing these ‘assessment’ activities because they’re ‘fun’ – I’m dismissing them because they’re rubbish.

      • I appreciate your distinction; however, I’m genuinely interested to understand why you deem all of these activities to be rubbish?

        • David Didau says:

          Some are less rubbish than others but as I explained in the blog, you can’t see learning. Any activitiy designed to be a ‘dipstick’ of what’s been learned in a lesson is a waste of time.

          • I’ve read your reflections with regards to seeing learning, and you have given me much food for thought. However, surely there are stages of learning, the first of which is to be given new knowledge, which over the weeks/month/years will develop into a more sophisticated cognitive state. I would contend that ‘dipsticks’ can be used to assess the acquisition of new knowledge. However, I agree that they can’t measure the long-term retention or application of that knowledge.

            Possibly a potato/potarto situation!

          • David Didau says:

            What’s the point of assessing new knowledge if the means of assessment doesn’t measure retention or application? What if your assessment says knowledges has been assessed in one lesson only for it to have been forgotten in the next? You might as well read tea leaves or prepare an astrological chart.

  3. Sam Aiston says:

    Disagree with last paragraph- not my experience at all. Often our staff talk about engaging the children even when it’s not enjoyable.
    Don’t think you can lump curiosity, grit, motivation and enjoyment together (all very different) and then produce the word engagement either.

  4. debrakidd says:

    They don’t say that engagement is motivation, curiosity, enjoyment and grit. They say engagement is the intensity with which children apply their learning. They then say that the other four are other terms which have reached cliche status. You could argue that intensity of application of learning is ‘thinking hard’ – indeed by their own definition, they seem to be suggesting that thinking hard doesn’t impact on learning. Of course we all know that it’s far more complicated than that, but when we can’t even agree on the definition of the word, then the research has to be flawed.

    • David Didau says:

      The research chose a word. It really does define it as I said – the quote I used is accurate. If you want to dispute the definitions instead of the research then that really is a waste of time.

      As I was at pains to point out in the blog – of course you can define engagement as ‘thinking hard’ – but this particular piece of research doesn’t. It defines engagement in the way most educators understand it: enjoyment, motivation & curiosity.

  5. I find this really interesting as I had genuinely, always taken ‘engagement’ to mean that the students are in any way involved in the lesson, as opposed to gazing out the window and opting out (putting aside the idea that I can’t actually tell who has or hasn’t opted out because I can’t see learning). I had never considered it to mean ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’ although I can see why planning a lesson thought to be ‘fun’ may be seen as a way of promoting engagement. If I had a room full of students working on an exam, I would consider them all to be ‘engaged’ and I am surprised at the idea that I may be in the minority in assuming this, seeing as they wouldn’t be likely to describe the lesson as fun.

    • David Didau says:

      Please don’t misunderstand me – I think your definition is preferable. I’m just not convinced that enjoyment is not seen as an important priority in the majority of cases.

  6. Debaser says:

    How about the issue of variety?

    Let’s assume that students learn best if they follow your suggested cycle for learning (explanation, model, scaffold, independent practice and interleaved recall).

    Do you think that we risk a drop in ‘concentration’ and ‘focus’ (which are perhaps better proxies or prerequisites for learning than ‘engagement’) if we repeat the same cycle with similar resources and approaches for each topic? Should we aim for a variety of approaches and stimuli or is ensuring ‘concentration’ and ‘focus’ all about setting high behavioural expectations using techniques such as ‘SLANT’?

    I’d be interested to here your thoughts.

    • David Didau says:

      Joe Kirby has argued that there is sufficient variety between lessons to need to focus on variety in lessons. I’m not sure that this is completely true – novelty has real power – trouble is, that power is unpredictable and may well end up being a distration.

  7. […] Dipsticks: It all depends on what you mean by ‘engagement’ – David Didau: The Lear…. […]

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  9. Fran says:

    I think the idea that learning should be fun actually comes from people not remembering how hard it was to learn the things they now know. Reading is fun, learning to read is hard. Solving complex mathematical equations is fun if you know how to do them, learning how is hard. The fun of learning is only in the success of achievement not in what it took to get there.

    • Yes – I think the phrase ‘Love of Learning’ is also misappropriated in this way too. I doubt there are many of us who simply enjoy learning something new irrespective of what that thing is, or the level of mastery it gives us. I think it is where the process takes us that results in a love of it… though I guess there can sometimes be the ‘thrill of the chase’.

  10. […] novelty, no matter its worth. I’ve written about some of my issues with this way of thinking here, here and here. But in summary, my main objection that what is engaging is often distracting and […]

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