Identify students’ responses to learning tasks along an engagement continuum from non-compliant to compliant to involved to absorbed. Gain some specific strategies for supporting an increase in student engagement.
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Announcer: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have a great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:29 Building student engagement in learning. I’m delighted today to be joined on the podcast by Heather Lyon. Heather is a assistant superintendent in Western New York state, a previous teacher of English, and she’s the author of a recently released book titled, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal).” So Heather, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome. And I know for a starter, you need to tell folks about the title of your book.
Heather: 01:11 [laughter] Thanks so much for having me. So the title of the book, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal),” is about the idea that we overuse the word engagement in our field. Everybody feels like they know what it is. But when they think about it they tend to think about it as a really high bar that’s unattainable or really low bar that isn’t really engagement. So a high bar would be something like students applaud at the end of your lesson and a low bar would be something like all students do exactly what they’re told to do. So neither of those two things felt like engagement to me so I wanted to think about engagement in ways that are less common then the myth of engagement, but still real. So the engagement is not a unicorn, unicorns are mythical and not real, even though everybody knows about them, they’re seen in everywhere. But narwhals, which are real animals, which is, it looks like a dolphin and a unicorn had a baby because it’s a whale with a horn coming out of its head. They’re real, even though not everybody knows that they’re real or knows the name of them. And so engagement in classrooms is real, but it’s not very common or not as common as it could be.
Steve: 02:47 So how would you describe for a teacher the best way that the teacher can identify the degree of engagement of particular students?
Heather: 03:03 So when we use the term engagement, we use it as though there’s one singular example of what engagement looks like and in the book I described that there are really four levels of engagement. So from left to right, so from least engaged to most engaged, you have non-compliant compliant, interested, and absorbed. And so in the classroom, we obviously don’t want non-compliance so we know that’s not engagement, but we often accept compliance as engagement and compliance is really just doing what you’re told to do, even if you don’t really want to do it. So really what we should be looking for are interested students and absorbed students. And there are ways that we can create environments to foster interest and absorption and it’s really by altering the tasks that we ask students to do and thinking differently about that work and also about thinking about what is motivating the student extrinsically and intrinsically in order to do that work.
Steve: 04:16 I have frequently used George Cuoros’ description of moving from compliant to engaged, to empowered and I’m wondering if you might make connections between those three elements and and your use of the term interested and absorbed.
Heather: 04:39 So when we have students who are interested, and I described this in the book, what we’re really talking about are students who enjoy doing the task, but in order to continue to do the task, they need some type of extrinsic motivation. So they either need a really good relationship with the person assigning the task for the people who they are jointly doing the task with, and/or they need an extrinsic consequence, positive or negative in order to do the task. So they they’re doing it because of the grade or they’re doing it because they don’t want you to call their Mom. And absorption, which is the highest level of engagement, is really they’re doing it for themselves. And so when I think about George Cuoros and what he talks about in terms of empowerment, he’s really talking about students who have the opportunity to identify ways that they learn best and things that they want to learn about and so certainly that creates high levels of engagement.
Heather: 05:40 We’re not all that lucky to be able to choose, create that level of autonomy in our learning environments, because truthfully, most of us are teaching courses that have mandated standards that we are trying to have students leave the course knowing. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to provide really high levels of choice and voice or even low levels of choice and voice are better than no choice or voice, because which would you rather do? The one task that I told you you had to do, or the task that you had some choice or voice in doing?
Steve: 06:28 So I’m wondering as I’m listening to you, would a teacher’s use of of genius hour as an activity be a way to create that opportunity for absorbed?
Heather: 06:44 Yes. The short answer is yes. The long answer is wouldn’t we all like to be paid at our jobs to do something that we are completely driven in learning more about for 20% of the time? That’s what genius hour tends to be is your 20% project. And really that started with, I think it’s an Australian company who really started that but Google picked up on it. And through that, were things like Gmail evolved. Gmail was somebody’s genius hour passion project. When I was in the classroom as an English teacher, I used to devote one day a week to sustained silent reading. And if I had instead said, one day a week, I want you to do reading, writing, listening, and speaking around something that is motivating to you that you want to know more about or do more on, I would probably have more reading that occurred. And so it’s really utilizing time differently in order to achieve the same results or better.
Steve: 08:02 So, if you were going to make a suggestion that – I come to you as a teacher and I share that I got way too many of my students working out of a compliant compliant mode and I’d really like to see the the interest pickup, what would your coaching suggestions be to me as to where I might go look to make that happen?
Heather: 08:30 I have three that I might recommend.
Steve: 08:35 Great.
Heather: 08:35 The easiest thing to do is to start to use equity sticks. So stop having students volunteer to learn and start putting it out there that all students are expected to do the thinking. And so that’s a really easy shift to make that really does start to spark in students. Like, oh, I gotta not just be quiet in this class in order to be okay. I need to participate in this class and learn. But the other two strategies really strike at the core of how we think about teaching and learning. So some people may find these to be radical. The first is stop grading or at least delay the grade. So in the book I describe at each level, I give three different examples of the manifestation of what that looks like and sounds like.
Heather: 09:48 At absorbed, you might be a novice. And so, you know, it’s like you’ve fallen in love with this thing. You don’t know if you’re any good at it yet, or if it’s going to be a long-term commitment that you’re going to be in, but you’re a novice. The second would be an enthusiast. So now you do this thing so much, it becomes your identity. So instead of going for a run it’s, I am a runner. And the third is an addict. And so we don’t want kids to become addicted, but actually we teach them in school about grades. And with grading, we tend to grade everything that they do, even though it’s their first draft of whatever it is that they’re doing. And rather than giving kids grades, we should be giving them feedback. And which can mean that you might get a grade eventually, or I’ll tell you your grade after I’ve given you this feedback.
Heather: 10:41 But as soon as we put the grade on the paper, the thinking stops. So I would stop grading. And I would either, depending on how you want to think about this, I would either allow or require do overs. I think the idea of saying to kids, “I’m not sure this is your best work yet. I think, now that we’ve talked about this, you could probably do this better. Why don’t you give it another shot and let’s see what comes of that?” Learning – I hate the term, the real world, because I think that minimizes or diminishes or dismisses even what kids experience every day, because whatever they’re experiencing is their real world. But as an adult, I’ll say that I don’t get grades. I don’t think you get grades either and yet I don’t need grades. And not having grades allows me to grow in ways that I don’t have to worry about how is this going to be immediately evaluated, even though I may not be immediatley successful.
Steve: 11:55 You just tapped one of my favorite stories from a teacher I worked with. She would have students do a rather major piece of writing early in the year. And then she would give them feedback on ways that it could be improved and then she would have them redo it. And then it came back with more feedback on how it could be improved and this one on across most of the year. And near the end of the year, it came back with a grade, which for most kids at that time was an A, but in addition to the grade, she put the date at which it was and A. Some kids found out in May, that they had an A in January and they improved their work three or four times after the A.
Heather: 12:47 [laughter] I love it.
Steve: 12:47 When they complained to the teacher she pointed out that that was her exact reason, that she wanted them to leave her class never being handicapped by a teacher who put an A on your paper.
Heather: 13:02 That’s exactly right.
Steve: 13:02 And it just came right to my mind as you were describing. Because once the A’s there is done. For some kids, once the C’s there,
Heather: 13:10 That’s true. I should also say that relationships matter more than anything, especially if we’re talking about non-compliance, compliance and interested. Relationships – external relationships really matter in those three levels of engagement, because if I am non-compliant, I’m basically saying that I don’t care about you and I don’t care about the impact that this has on you. And if we’re in compliant or interested, what we’re saying is I want to make sure that I don’t disappoint you by not doing this work. And I don’t want learning to be about connected exclusively to the relationship that the learner has with the person who they’re learning from. But to not take that into consideration, I think is a big misstep. Which is why I really do tell my teachers, like, don’t apologize at the beginning of the year if you’re taking time to establish relationships. I think you can establish relationships through the learning process as well. Meaning, I don’t think you need to like, just have conversations about what’s your favorite ice cream flavor, but activities like circles, activities like notebooks that might be passed back and forth, building opportunities for students to relationships with their peers, developing relationships with home and family, all of those relationships have a huge impact on engagement.
Steve: 15:03 Thanks Heather. Thank you so much. Would you take a little time to tell the the listeners where they can find you on on your website and some of the resources there that teachers might want to tap into?
Heather: 15:18 Yes. So my website is lyonsletters.com, spelled L Y O N S L E T T E R S .com. So Lyon with a Y. And on the website, are obviously links to where you can buy the book, but also even if you never bought the book, all the videos that I referenced in the book, all of the visuals in the book are available for free. So I encourage people to stop by and take a look. And then I post a blog weekly during the school year so you know, I write about being a Mom who’s a educator mom. I write about all things education and my kids are my biggest muses. So you’ll see that in the book as well. And then you can always follow me on social media, @lyonsletters is my Twitter handle where I’m really active.
Steve: 16:20 Be sure to put those connections in the lead-in to the podcast in case folks missed it they can go back and find it. Thank you so much.
Heather: 16:32 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 16:32 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.