Weasel Words #1: EngageFebruary 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.