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Weasel Words #1: Engage

February 8, 2012

Some concepts, like knowledge, are very useful in education. Others, like self-esteem, are invariably harmful and used to justify  failure to educate. However, there is another category of concepts. There are also ideas that frustrate debate through sheer ambiguity; that allow arguments to rest on equivocation. These are the Weasel Words.

If you have a bad idea about education, be it a teaching method that won’t result in learning or a course of study that will leave students no more educated than they were when they started, then all the weasel words you need can be found be looking at the various variations on the word engage. All you need say is:

Engage your students by following my worthless advice!”

“Organise these futile activities and your classes will be engaged!

“Use the new science of learning to engage the brains of your learners!”

“Increase students’ engagement with our interactive resources!”

The word is used because it is ambiguous; it can mean different things. Often we say you are engaged by something if it is fun or pleasurable, or if you are entertained or motivated. Those  who argue for dumbing-down, for taking the hard work, the element of challenge and the mental stress out of the classroom will suggest “engaging” activities. If something is pointless fun, or a welcome break from hard work and all the unpleasantness of actually learning, then all the laziest students are likely to be engaged. Give them cakes; put on a video; tell them a funny story; make an arse of yourself and you’ll have engaged them. It’s not an achievement to engage because in this context it’s just another word for “entertain”, perhaps even “mildly entertain”, and it’s no big deal because, of course, anything can engage the mind of anyone to some extent and the tiniest things will entertain the tiniest minds.

Teachers feel quite happy to admit that their job is not to entertain.  Not everything can be fun, easy or popular with Year 10 on a Friday afternoon. They are not clowns or motivational speakers. However, teachers are far less happy to suggest their lessons shouldn’t be engaging. This is because engagement, as a weasel word, can have other meanings. You are engaged by something if it has your attention, or if it occupies you. No teacher will say “I won’t try to engage my students” because it can be understood to mean “I will neither get them to listen to me, nor give them anything to do”. If you claim that you do not engage your students you are saying they ignore you and do nothing. At this level, engagement is a truly meaningless aim because all learning involves engagement, but not all engagement involves learning.

And here lies the problem, with some definitions engaging our students is something we all do, with other definitions it is something that reeks of dumbing-down and edu-tainment. On the one hand students are engaged by being kept awake and attentive; on the other hand they are engaged by being vaguely amused. On the one hand they are engaged when they are concentrating; on the other hand, they are engaged by not having to concentrate too hard. On the one hand they are engaged when they are being taught; on the other hand they are engaged when they are not being taught.

We should probably lose this weasel word from the teacher’s vocabulary. If you mean entertain then say “entertain”. If you mean occupy then say “occupy”. But more importantly, we should watch out for when a lesson, a teacher, an activity or a resource is described as “engaging”. Our students are not automata; they don’t simply engage as an automated or automatic response to an engaging stimulus. They choose whether to engage or not. We shouldn’t ask whether a lesson was engaging, but whether students were choosing to engage, and hold those students responsible if they choose not to.

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21 comments

  1. I find this to be an odd semantic argument that really misses the point about a word that is perhaps misused, but still very useful. There is, of course, the spectre of classrooms full of busy activities with little depth knowledge or understanding being developed and lessons that teach to ‘multiple modalities’ of learning while missing the primary academic skills needed for success in that subject. However, good teachers are interesting. They find, create and use captivating and challenging materials. There is also the spectre of boring teachers who live in the classroom of 50 years ago in the modern schools of today, who still assign reading chapters and the questions at the back of the unit as the primary source of learning, who lecture endlessly, who feel threatened by any new way of doing things and who, in general, make little effort to relate learning to the lives of the students.

    I find the final sentences disturbing:

    “Our students are not automata; they don’t simply engage as an automated or automatic response to an engaging stimulus. They choose whether to engage or not. We shouldn’t ask whether a lesson was engaging, but whether students were choosing to engage, and hold those students responsible if they choose not to.”

    We have all, now or back in the ‘good old days,’ had teachers who inspired us because they themselves still loved learning and loved teaching. FACT: school children, like the rest of us, will engage the learning process when they see that what they are learning is important and that those doing the teaching care. That is my definition of engaging. It is not a weasel word. The weasels are those teachers, administrators and parent who are too lazy or indifferent to truly engage school children with interesting, challenging, and God forbid, event interactive lessons. I find some comments in the Battle Ground strive to attack contemporary ineffective educational concepts to justify old concepts that were no more effective. I engage my students and as a teacher I think that each of us should realize we have tremendous power in the classroom to motivate and inspire. In my experience, children want to learn and it takes a lot of effort to stamp this characteristic out. I also have found that those teachers who rely on ‘making students responsible’ are in fact boring and disengaging.

    Anthony


    • I have often found the opposite Anthony. I had posted previously on teachers I know who can wax lyrical about engagement, student centred learning etc- and their classrooms were war zones and most of the kids held them in contempt.

      Personally, I prefer good discipline with a mix of lecturing, debates, group work, silent work, video clips, project work, competitions, regular tests, peer learning etc.

      But yes, regularly there will be bouts of silent book work doing questions and old fashioned chalk and talk. And guess what, even the less able can cope- because we insist they do.

      And guess what, 1000s of people have been inspired by their teachers using traditional teaching methods. They didn’t need flash cards etc to engage them. Is there nothing more limitless and bountiful that than the human brain?


    • Is there an argument in here, or are you just trying to convince yourself of a highly dubious narrative?

      I find it impossible to think that confidence in the new rather than old is a sign of a good teacher, not just because of personal experience of new innovations (or rather trendy methods; there are few new ideas) simply not working and of being taught by the older generation of teachers you despise, but because experience has been shown time (and time again) to be the best determinant of teacher quality.

      Inspiration, motivation and interest will always be the excuse for dumbing-down, because hard-work and challenge are not fun and while the result *can* be inspiring the process isn’t. No dodgy narrative in which “fun lessons” are new and work, and traditional teaching methods don’t. can get us away from this. All it can do is devalue experience and tradition in favour of faddishness and appeasement. Kids know that “can we have a fun lesson?” is code for “I don’t want to work today”. It’s just depressing that so many adults in the profession, or more often controlling or advising the profession, don’t.


  2. Good point, I’d never really thought about the damaging implications of this concept. We’re constantly being encouraged to teach lessons that equip learners for the jobs of the future. Can we assume that these jobs will all be entertaining from start to finish, full of fun activities and not requiring anyone to concentrate on something he/she is not really enthusiastic about? And can we assume that the bosses and supervisors will blame themselves if their workers aren’t engaged by the tasks they set?


  3. I totally agree. I think that some teachers simply rejoice when students are actually taking part, ‘engaging’ in the activity organised by the teacher – but as is implied, this is not necessarily asserting the teacher’s authority in the case that this activity is fun/unchallenging (which would be a positive achievement) – students will then quite happily choose to refuse to work on the next activity if this actually requires effort and is not so enjoyable.


  4. “Give them cakes; put on a video; tell them a funny story; make an arse of yourself and you’ll have engaged them.”

    Precisely.

    “Our students are not automata; they don’t simply engage as an automated or automatic response to an engaging stimulus. They choose whether to engage or not.”

    only apparently this isn’t the case. I’m assured that if I make my lessons sufficiently ‘stimulating’ (sic) they will automatically a) behave b) ‘engage’ c) become better citizens…since any sufficiently ‘stimulating’ lesson will of course be bursting to the gills with SMSC -the educational wonder adhesive to fix any broken society.

    On a side issue…I understand the first S of SMSC stands for spiritual..

    …and as a profound-though non-mechanistic-materialist, does requiring me to include a ‘spiritual’ element in my lessons represent a breach of my human rights? I’m sure, say, Catholic teachers have opt-outs on various matters. I’m fundamentally opposed to the notion of the meta-physical. Why am I required to allude to it my lessons? Can I just assume that ‘spiritual’ is a signifier of aspects of consciousness for which we don’t an adequate explanation in terms of neural activity?…and can I say so?
    “Yes, I know you believe in God/ collective consciousness/ psychic space/ communal memories/ Gaia/ UFOs/ transubstantiation/ the healing power of crystals/ karma etc, but that’s because you’re making totally wacky and unwarranted assumptions about certain subjective feelings.” Surely I’m allowed to say that; to do otherwise would be an affront to my self-respect.


  5. Anthony,
    Whilst this argument is totally valid in many classrooms, in too many others, behaviour is so poor and actively disruptive that the first step to becoming engaged in a subject is never taken by the students.
    Indeed, even the pupils who have decided that they do not like school/do not want to learn CAN realise the benefit of learning and enjoy it for what it is – often what it takes is a first minor achievement – but this does require initial effort/hard work even in the smallest amount. In many classrooms this first effort is not made because behaviour is so poor, and that is why the students must be held responsible, simply because in these situations, the teacher would set them on the right path/inspire them, but they are never given the chance. The poor behaviour is not (in these worst situations) due to poor teaching.


  6. I must admit that I saw the title of this one on an email and thought myself “I don’t think I can spare the time to read this one it looks a little pedantic”. Anthony subsequently described it as “an odd semantic argument”. Having read the words from OA and then the reply from Anthony I am now glad I did because what I found was probably the core issue for me in education cunningly disguised as a perhaps, and please forgive me if I insult in any way, a more trivial one.

    I agree with Anthony that the final sentence is worthy of further discussion, but I disagree with his view of the world. Anthony said this…..”FACT: school children, like the rest of us, will engage the learning process when they see that what they are learning is important and that those doing the teaching care. That is my definition of engaging. It is not a weasel word.”

    I don’t see any evidence to support the argument that if a child believes that you “care” (about what I am not sure as Anthony doesn’t make this clear) and also that what they are being asked to learn is “important” then they “will engage the learning process”.

    I have all sorts of issues with this as it seems to summarise much of what is wrong with current muddled thinking.

    Much of the “learning process” takes place within a persons head and it is not necessarily something you engage with. I think you can attempt to involve someone in a process or perhaps encourage them to participate in a process but whether this is a learning process for the engagee is in the final analysis their choice.

    As adults many people go to work and engage with their work on a superficial level but find little fun or personal reward/development in what they do. They do this to earn money to buy things for themselves and their loved ones. How often do you hear it said….

    “Old Joe is dreadful, he didn’t engage Arthur today so Arthur did nothing. The sooner we sort Joe out the better”. I think not. More often we will hear “Arthur didn’t do any work today so we will talk to Arthur and find out what might make his job more interesting etc but in the end if he doesn’t come up to scratch he will have to go”.

    I believe this is because outside the strange world of teaching people know that it is not possible for one person to motivate another. One is able to provide an environment in which there is not reason why another might not be motivated to engage and one can certainly act in a way that demotivates people and this should be avoided but in the end, if one does not facilitate demotivation then it really is up to the individual themselves, as OA says “they have a choice”.

    At “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employee_engagement” there is I feel a useful insight into engagement and what might be done to encourage it.

    “We have all, now or back in the ‘good old days,’ had teachers who inspired us because they themselves still loved learning and loved teaching”. Here I feel Anthony misunderstands necessary and sufficient conditions. Of course a bored, monotone and repetitive approach is likely to be demotivating but it should be assumed that if pupils are demotivated then it is because the teacher is at fault.

    “The weasels are those teachers, administrators and parent who are too lazy or indifferent to truly engage school children with interesting, challenging, and God forbid, event interactive lessons.”

    Here Anthony seems to suggest that teachers who see engagement as the responsibility of both teacher and pupil as somehow lazy or indifferent, and seems not to see how insulting this is to the vast majority of teachers who work hard in difficult circumstances to help their pupils learn.

    “There is also the spectre of boring teachers who live in the classroom of 50 years ago in the modern schools of today”. The interesting thing is Anthony, that Cognitive Science tells us that children still learn today in the same way as they did 50 years ago. 50 years ago the majority of children did participate in the process. 50 years ago the vast majority of pupils did learn a great deal at school even if it wasn’t always fun and passed exams that were worth the paper they were written on.

    Making the teacher responsible for the pupil choosing not to pay attention to the learning opportunity is in my view the most serious issue to be faced by educators now and in the future. By the time we in the west realise that our state system is failing our kids at a time when those in the east are actually providing a real education maybe it will be too late, but it is unlikely to matter too much.

    Maybe we are cultivating an edutained population who take no responsibility for their own choices in life, to live on benefits while blaming everyone else for their lack of success.


    • I have told my (incredulous) classes that the most important thing we can teach them at school is how to be bored. OK, that’s hyperbole – but the basic point is something I believe with all my heart. Becoming expert in any skill, mastering any body of knowledge, cannot be done without a massive amount of tedious, repetitive work. No musician finds scales and arpeggios ‘engaging'; no sportsman is massively ‘engaged’ by fitness training – and the same goes for learning.


  7. bt0558 and Sue,

    in very different ways you have both articulated the views of myself and many dedicated and experienced colleagues wonderfully!


  8. I must disagree. Engaging children in their learning is completely fine in my opinion and a joy to do. You can do so by climbing off the podium at the front and being prepared for anything to happen. But don’t just consign such a fine word to the mediocrity of being a weasel.


  9. Kevin
    The world would be a very dull place if we all agreed. I can see that I might engage a child (or adult) in conversation, I might give them a task that they could engage with and I might even become engaged in a task myself to model behaviour but I cannot see how I could “engage a child in their learning”. For a person to engage with a task is perhaps a useful concept when considering how a human being learns and how one might provide a more productive learning environment, but that is a long way in my view from “engaging children in their learning”.
    I feel that your follow up comment…”You can do so by climbing off the podium at the front and being prepared for anything to happen” is the most telling. This introduces the fallacy of the false dichotomy and I think this is necessary as there is no real support anywhere other than in the evangelistic exhalations of sound bite educators for the idea that it is possible for one person to “engage” someone else in learning.
    If would help me if you were able to explain how you manage to cause others to engage in learning rather than to encourage others to engage in learning, or have i misunderstood your use of the phrase “Engaging children in their learning” as a causal process.
    ps…..there are in my view situations when a teacher should stand at the front on the podium but these occasions occur infrequently, and any teacher who does not expect the unexpected at any time, whether on the podium or not, is clearly deluded.


    • bt0558

      Gotta say: I agree with you. Although I’m not sure you couldn’t have shortened things by simply stating: ‘to engage’ in nearly all its senses is a reflexive verb; this is especially true in the case of learning.

      I can no more engage somebody in learning than I can engage them in introspection, recall, rationalisation, deduction, analysis, synthesis…I can only ask them or encourage them to do these things…possibly I could ‘facilitate’ engagement with learning, but that would entail another argument and would require me to adopt the belief that I could condition and direct their mental processes-presumably by mounting wall displays, remaining upbeat and positive, telling how much their well-being meant to me, exuding motivation from my every pore and demonstrating a love of and enthusiasm for my subject. Alternatively, I could get a job in a school where most of the kids wanted to learn and save myself all the hassle. But where’s the fun in that?


  10. Interestingly, Hattie says, “there needs to be a deliberate attempt to assimilate or accomodate new learning. That means that a major precursor to learning is engagement in the learning.”

    That would seem to suggest that for learning to take place students must be engaged.

    I accept that this word is often misused and abused but that doesn’t mean to say that it is the wrong word to use. If you want to go to the trouble of deciding on a synonym which we can all agree to use instead then fair enough. But really, what would be the point? It would be equally open to misinterpretation.


    • Are you seriously trying to suggest that because Hattie used this weasel word (and in the phrase you quote he used it in exactly the way that I find so misleading) then it must be okay?

      I’m not sure why you are requesting a synonym. The problem is with the ambiguous meaning of the word, so finding another word with the same meaning would hardly solve the problem.


      • It worries me when important issues in education are missed in favour of a semantic discussion.

        “An important lesson is how to be bored” – really? To engage is not to inspire. I am engaged by this debate because I am passionate about the themes discussed. If the author had listed all of his favourite socks it would be informative – but I wouldn’t care so would not be engaged or engage with it.

        I am not, however, inspired – inspiration is a rarer commodity – which one encounters less often.


        • The reason for discussing semantics is that ambiguity prevents discussion. To oppose all semantic discussion would be to suggest that it is wrong for people to attempt to resolve difficulties in communication.


  11. […]   Apr 22 Should learning be fun? Filed Under (education, learning) by learningspy on 22-04-2012 and tagged 000 hours, 10, deliberate practice, fun, John Hattie, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Jordan var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}One of the most frequently used (and abused) buzz words in education over recent years is ‘engagement’. Now, I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t be engaged in their lessons but I would urge you to check the definition of the word. To engage means either to “to occupy the attention or efforts of a person”, or “to attract and hold fast”. For more on engagement read this. […]


  12. There seems to be endless mention in the press currently of the idea that ‘good teachers’ inspire and motivate. It leaves any sincere but realistic teacher feeling like a failure. Is anything less than a ‘Dead Poets Society’ standard just bad teaching then? Funny that some kids seem to find most of their teachers engaging enough and other kids find none of the same teachers engaging. Some students I teach that have been quite disengaged, say in year 12, faced with with a set of rubbish AS results, suddenly find their lessons highly engaging- or maybe they learnt an important lesson and grew up a bit.
    I find this whole obsession about rooting out bad teachers (evil beings by all accounts who single handedly have undermined the education of our nations’s children) as worrying. Especially when combined with defining good teachers as those that inspire and motivate. The next sentence of an article nearly always then says that we all remember a teacher that motivated us. Except now it seems EVERY teacher has to motivate EVERY child or be categorised as one of those evil ‘bad’ teachers.


  13. […] there are some who cast aspersions on the concept of engagement, we all want our pupils to make greater effort don’t […]


  14. […] is not always clear what “engagement” means as I discussed here. If it is used to mean enjoyment, then there are serious questions to be asked about the assumption […]



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