Reflections on Engagement
Engagement is not in itself a term we have necessarily encountered a great deal in recent discussion, yet it encompasses, to a large extent, what Curriculum for Excellence is trying to achieve and provides purpose for the strategies contained in AifL and various associated initiatives.
A simple definition of engagement in the classroom may be the active participation of both teachers and pupils in the learning process. Of course, this process has undoubtedly been going on in many classrooms for a long time, and a desire to share and spread good practice should not be viewed as criticism, though this point has not, perhaps, been made as clearly as it might by those leading the CfE initiative.
It may be helpful to identify two elements essential to the success of this process - willingness to participate in the learning (and teaching) activities in the classroom (which may be viewed as a social element), and accessibility of the material used and studied in the classroom (which will be subject specific and dependent on level of challenge as well as clarity of explanation).
Why is reflection on engagement important?
In an age when the study of subjects is no longer necessarily compulsory, and when authorities are obliged only to provide the means of pursuing such a study, the days of automatic respect for education and teachers are long gone, replaced by (a desired) increased personal responsibility both in terms of choices to be made and application in class. The reality is that not all pupils will be able to determine for themselves what will be important to them, or will be able to apply themselves as fully as we might wish. It is therefore doubly important to be able to engage their attention and to involve them more fully in the pursuit of their educational tasks. By doing so, of course, it is hoped that pupils will develop learning skills as well as gain knowledge, and will learn to be more independent and self-supporting. Thus, it is hoped they will gain a feeling of advancement and a more profound understanding not only of what is being studied but how to go about such a study, while the manner in which we go about achieving this may influence how we treat others - with reason, respect and equality.
The strategies and practices we use to achieve these goals may vary considerably, but will by and large be in keeping with the elements of engagement mentioned above. These can also be divided into two rough categories - environmental and mechanical, i.e. those which will affect the atmosphere in which we learn, and those which influence what and how we learn.
It is a well known phenomenon that pupils tend not to transfer knowledge and skills from one subject to another, in secondary. Knowledge and skills are often compartmentalised and there has therefore been much talk of cross-curricular projects to try to counter the effect of curriculum division - to the point where some have even suggested the whole curriculum should be delivered through a cross-curricular project. This may be something of an over-reaction. It may be quite sufficient to make connections with various aspects of life, encouraging pupils to see the "bigger picture" rather than, in the case of an ML teacher, restricting lessons to linguistic elements.
Equally important is the way in which lessons are delivered. While discipline is absolutely essential, pupils will generally gain much of their "social education" through the way in which a lesson is conducted.
Much has been made of the need for teachers to engage with pupils, but of course this is a two-way process. Pupils must also learn to develop skills of concentration and focus. Rather than put the entire onus on the teacher to capture the attention of pupils, it seems only reasonable to expect pupils to be able to take an interest, and I am far from convinced that present and proposed methodologies will help develop these essential skills.
If, by and large, lessons are presented as fun and games, pupils may well end up treating them as such. There must be a balance between capturing attention and paying attention. Concentration is, after all, an essential life skill and if pupils come to expect teachers to make all the effort to capture their attention, we are doing them a considerable disservice. There is still, undoubtedly, a place for "traditional" lessons, but this should be balanced with lessons requiring greater input and initiative from our pupils.
I would suggest, however, that it is not just in the area of teacher-pupil relationships that we should be looking at the whole issue of engagement. It seems to me that there is something of a problem in the relationship between teachers and policy-makers, i.e. those leading the roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence.
I have suggested in the past that there has been a lack of clarity in both language and content in the CfE documents produced until now. Much emphasis has been laid on the fact that this is not a "top down" initiative, that schools will have to reflect on their own way forward, and that teachers should be "reflective practitioners", thereby neatly sidestepping the need for national guidance and instruction. I have also stated that a reflective practitioner is not necessarily an innovator, and it is perfectly fitting to deliver a lesson inspired by others' examples or following suggestions in a book. It is, of course, recommended that these models be changed or amended to suit your and your pupils' needs, but it seems quite ludicrous to expect all teaching staff and schools to develop their own syllabus and courses. Quite apart from anything else, how would this affect staff and pupils who change schools?
CfE consists, very largely, of common sense and good practice. This is not to say that we cannot develop and spread this good practice - no-one would dream of denying that, but this interpretation is a long way from the impression given in official documents so far produced.
Let us have a look at some of these good practices and let us question whether they have been implemented by those leading CfE with regard to their stakeholders, teachers.
1) Learning intentions should be stated at the start of the lesson.
There should be a clear end product with step by step progression.
2) Build on previous knowledge of your stakeholders.
Before adding a new element, it is advisable to remind pupils/stakeholders of what they already know and make links between that and the new element. This, combined with clear explanations of how to apply the new element, will help build confidence and competence. This will be followed by practice and exercise - with the teacher and with other stakeholders.
3) Practice and exercise
A considerable variety of methods should be used, bearing in mind varying levels of ability and interest, but all should be accessible and very clearly explained. Models should be used to ensure clarity of understanding and thought - especially if pupils are to be expected to produce something similar by their own initiative. Apart from clear initial explanation and direction for a task, support should be available throughout the exercise - better to catch a small error early on than have to redo the whole exercise at a later date due to lack of comprehension. With this in mind, good lines of communication are essential - teachers should listen to their pupils and respond to any problems they might be having.
4) Summarise what has been learned at the end of the lesson.
Remind pupils/stakeholders of what they have learned this lesson, identifying progress and therefore building confidence and an awareness of their own knowledge and worth. Praise and recognition of hard work will be invaluable in this regard.
5) Cross-curricular links
Emphasise and discuss the cross-cutting content of the lesson. Broaden the lesson to encompass global issues or issues of social relevance.
I'd never have thought of that.
6) Encourage self-reliance and initiative
Self-reliance and initiative are the ideal outcomes if pupils/stakeholders have access to resources and can develop their own understanding. This process usually requires input and guidance to help master reflection and reinforce knowledge and understanding. The amount of input and guidance will vary with each pupil - not necessarily because of differing levels of ability, but because of different characters. Input from others will help pupils learn and develop.
This is called teaching.
So, not the best interim report. Being non-"top-down" does not preclude leadership and guidance.
I would strongly suggest teachers share good practice through discussion, observation and sharing of resources and ideas via the internet. To this end I set up a group of pages with a view to sharing materials, which you will find here. I would be delighted to link to or include any materials you may wish to share.
Stuart Fernie (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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