There is an understandable antipathy in some education circles around the word “engagement”. For a long time it was used in sentences like:
- “You need to plan engaging lessons to prevent bad behaviour”
- “Make sure you plan engaging activities”
- “Make sure you engage pupils by making the lesson relevant to their lives”
etc etc. The term became synonymous for “fun”, and there are few things more dreary than a lesson designed around what an adult thinks a teenager will find fun. The problem with many of these “engaging” activities is that the activity dominated the learning. I remember creating lessons where pupils would build shanty towns from cardboard boxes which would then be destroyed by uncaring governments (played beautifully by myself). The next lesson they would all remember how to build a shanty town from a cornflake box but very little about the problems faced by people living in these communities.
So I can understand the concern that some people have about the term and the reaction and rolling of the eyes when it is mentioned. The problem is, engagement matters. It just means something different to the examples given above.
For pupils to learn what we want them to learn they need to think about the things we want them to think about. Memory is the residue of thought and learning is a change in long term memory (to combine Willingham and Kirschener into one delicious whole). If pupils are thinking about the things we want them to think about then I would argue they are “engaged”. And this therefore matters.
It matters because we do need to think about how to engage them. It is just that how we engage them is less about designing fun and wacky activities and is more about how we create the conditions that are ideal for them to think about what we want them to think about.
This engagement means really well planned explanations that are delivered well and rich in analogies and examples. Engagement means avoiding distractions, whether from poor behaviour, visual clutter or people knocking on the door to deliver messages. Engagement means designing well planned activities that challenge them to think about the topic in a new way and apply what they have learnt in different contexts. Engagement is about creating the conditions in which learning takes place.
It also means finding ways to encourage them to think about the subject outside of the classroom. To tap into that natural curiosity about the world around them. Luckily, geography is a naturally engaging subject. We can encourage them to engage in this way by getting them to read around the topic, discuss it, watch documentaries about it, visit museums. Engage with the subject. The more time they spend thinking about it, recalling what they learnt previously, the more they will learn.
Engagement is is a bit of a vague term that can be used in all sorts of ways. So lets use it to mean something important. Lets engage with the term and reclaim it as a powerful part of learning.