Lost in a sea of strategies? Focus on Engagement.

For the past few months, PLCs have been exploring a variety of instructional strategies. These conversations usually take the form of “Activity A begets Strategy B.” The result is a lot of strategies and A LOT of activities. While this may work for some, the surfeit of options leaves some teachers to nod politely and continue on with business as usual.

Rather than placing the focus on activities, consider the atmosphere of your class. What’s it like? What are students doing and how are they doing it? How do they enter your classroom? Far from ephemeral, these questions were studied by a team of researchers whose findings were published in a 2016 article for Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The authors identify three ways in which teachers may measure engagement:

Academic Engagement

The authors lift up attentiveness and compliance as hallmarks of the academically engaged classroom. Attentiveness and compliance are anathemas in many present-day conversations around classroom management. “Attentiveness” means an excessive focus on the teacher while “compliance” suggests that we’re grooming automatons. For starters, attentiveness and compliance connote an adherence to social norms in class, which means that norms must have been established. (“In this class, we attend to everyone and we make sure we understand the demands of the task before we begin the work. Everyone on board with that?”) Students should certainly bear the agency to question ideas, but they had better understand the rules of engagement such that the seeds that they sow fall on ground that’s ready to nurture them. Far from a flock of conscripted sheep, an attentive and compliant classroom can start all manner of revolutions.

Cognitive Engagement

Cognitive engagement can often be very difficult for an outside observer to identify. I’ve visited many classrooms where only after I knelt down and spoke with students did I realize the high-octane work that they were doing. Analytical, collaborative work can draw in students that are nurtured by a challenge. Most English classes that I’ve observed have high levels of cognitive engagement…reading Chains or The Outsiders through the lens of depression or examining dystopic elements of our own societies through the lens of dystopia novels. Even at the middle school level, students can shoulder these ideas and concepts, not just for their provocative nature, but for their relevance to their own lives.

Relational Engagement

Based on my observations, the amount of relational engagement really depends on the teacher’s belief behind the role of knowledge in the classroom. Those who believe that knowledge should be earned and displayed (on an assessment) will demonstrate low levels of relational engagement. Knowledge is guarded and sometimes fought over, a prize to be won through a high quiz or test grade. By contrast, classrooms that view knowledge as a shared endeavor, the force that raises the tide of understanding for the entire class, these classes show unmistakeable amounts of relational engagement. Class conversation is discursive, relaxed, students attribute one another’s work and build upon it. How deftly this is done usually depends upon the amount of scaffolding teachers have built around discussion. The use of sentence stems (I like what Cristiana said about…) help build student fluency with relationally intelligent conversation.

So, now what?

When teachers talk about strategies, a litany of activities (and accompanying to-do’s in order to set up said activities) is soon to follow. Rather than think about strategies at the activity level, consider thinking about strategy at the atmospheric level. What’s the vibe in your classroom?

  • Are students attentive to the teacher and to one another? Have they all bought into the same rules of engagement on the task at hand?
  • Are they engaged in highly challenging cognitive work? Are they asking or answering How and Why questions, rather than a lot of What and When questions?
  • Are students encouraged to share their knowledge? Have they learned strategies and protocols to share knowledge fluidly?

If your classroom looks like this, may I pay you a visit?

The authors’ article may be found at Sage Journals.

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