What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.