The Strange Reality of Engagement

Guest Post By: Gerald Aungst
This post originally was posted on Gerald’s blog.

The reality of “student engagement” hit me square in the face yesterday as I sat in an ASCD presentation by Allison Zmuda and Robyn Jackson. In it, they shared their keys to engaging students in the classroom. I couldn’t help but compare with another workshop I attended recently on the same topic. I will not name the presenters of the second one for reasons that will be clear shortly.

Bi8g6JMCQAER-lwThere was much in common between the two workshops. Both had two presenters who co-taught together, using a tag-team approach. Both shared both concrete strategies and research about learning. Both used specific, personal examples from the presenters’ experiences, and both sets of speakers clearly cared deeply about what they were sharing.

But they contrasted sharply in one key factor: the level of engagement of the audience. The earlier workshop was a very traditional style of presentation. The presenters used slides heavy with text, mostly consisting of quotes from research, which they proceeded to read aloud as they came on screen. Despite having a compelling core message and intriguing ideas, they somehow managed to turn it into something less-than-interesting, to the point where I left the room about halfway through. I had their content in slides and some other resources, and the presentation added nothing that I couldn’t learn from reading.

Jackson and Zmuda, on the other hand, not only shared strategies, they used them, modeling for us how to keep a group of learners engaged. Their style of presenting was high energy and kept us actively involved, a challenging thing to do in a room of several hundred, seated theater-style.

Their visuals complemented the points they were making without redundancy. They encouraged us frequently to talk to each other or to share insights via Twitter. As they traded off responsibility for being the “lead teacher,” whoever was not speaking was circulating through the room or interacting with the Twitter backchannel. There was a great deal of added value for me as a learner from the chat that took place with those around me, and the end result was that my own understanding was crystallized in ways that Jackson and Zmuda couldn’t have anticipated.

From this experience I draw a few conclusions:

  1. Style matters. Teaching is in part a performance, and as teachers we can’t ignore that. Two different teachers faced with the same material, and even the same outline, can present it differently, and the impact on the learner is going to be different. I don’t believe that style can overcome a lack of worthwhile content; substance is necessary, it’s just not sufficient.
  2. Engagement is personal. Jackson and Zmuda made a clear distinction between compliance and engagement. The way I understand and interpret their work, compliance is all about the teacher, and engagement is all about the learner. That can be a frightening thing for the teacher, especially when you realize that this takes all the learning out of the control of the teacher. But that’s also power, because as happened in the backchannel of the session, important learning took place that went well beyond the scope of the planned lesson.
  3. Engagement is social. I was much more engaged in the content when I was interacting with other people around the ideas than when I was sitting by myself taking notes. Here’s the interesting bit, though: there was a great deal that was said and done in Zmuda and Jackson’s session that I was not paying attention to because I was engaged in learning. Think about that for a second: my attention was not on the “lesson,” it was on my learning. There was one time Zmuda walked by while I was chatting on Twitter about an interesting idea (with the person sitting next to me, oddly enough), and it occurred to me that if this had been a traditional classroom, the teacher would have chastised me for not paying attention. If a principal had been observing, she might have noted that I was “not on task” and later talked to the teacher about how to better engage the students; ironic, since it was precisely because I was engaged that I wasn’t “paying attention.”

This has implications both for our teaching, and for those who train and evaluate teachers. I’m not sure I’ve worked it all out yet, but it’s certainly something that I’ll be thinking—and sharing—about for a while.

What are your thoughts? I’m especially interested in hearing from anyone else who attended the same session, or who happened to be following the #realengagement hashtag on Twitter. And if you’re interested in more on this, Jackson and Zmuda will be doing a live webinar on the topic on March 27th. You can register for free here.

Gerald Aungst taught elementary school for 18 years before moving into his current position as supervisor of gifted education and elementary mathematics for the School District of Cheltenham Township (PA). The father of three boys, he is also an avid gamer and loves a great cup of coffee.


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