Heather Lyon, an assistant superintendent and the author of, Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), describes her Engagement Framework and its application for supporting teacher professional development and coaching. She identifies the connections between learning tasks and relationships in extending student engagement.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:52 Identifying student engagement. I’m excited today to be joined on our podcast with Heather Lyon. Heather is the assistant
superintendent in a Western New York state school district and she is the author of a book titled, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal),” and I had a chance to speak with Heather earlier and I got a chance to get the copy of her book and I’m excited to have her here today to to share share her thoughts and thinking with you. So thank you, Heather.
Heather: 01:33 Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:35 So Heather, I know the first thing you gotta do is explain the title of the book.
Heather: 01:39 I do. Yeah. So, when we think about engagement, we often, first of all, it’s a really overused term in our field. And so, when people hear the term engagement, they tend to think of it as something that has a bar that’s so high that we can’t reach it or a bar that’s so low that it’s ridiculous to even call that engagement. So the low bar might be something like compliance. Like, all kids in your classroom will do exactly what you can tell them to do. That’s the low bar. The high bar is something like, all kids in your classroom will applaud at the end of your lesson.
Steve: 02:21 [laughter]
Heather: 02:21 So either way, that sounded pretty mythical to me. But we – like I said, the term is overused. So just like everybody knows what a unicorn is, unicorns are mythical, whereas not everybody knows what a narwhal is. And for those who don’t, you’ve seen one I’m sure but you may not realize that it’s a real animal because we’ve seen them as stuffed animals. It’s a whale, looks like a dolphin with horn on it like a unicorn. So the idea of the title is that engagement is not mythical like a unicorn, it is real but maybe not as common like a narwhal.
Steve: 03:04 Thanks. I love the title. I love the title. The book is subtitled, “Mind Changing Theories and Strategies That Will Create Real Engagement” and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your your use of the term mind changing.
Heather: 03:24 So if I were to ask you, or, you know, your listeners to think about how they might define engagement before I share how I define engagement, you know, a lot of people think about kids doing what they’re told to do or maybe kids really enjoying what they’re told to do. But the book establishes that engagement is really not one – it doesn’t manifest in one singular way, but there are actually four degrees, if you will, of engagement. And so, the idea of the subtitle is that after reading the book and hearing about the four different levels of engagement, you can’t not see engagement in that way anymore. So I’ve changed your mind about what engagement means or doesn’t mean.
Steve: 04:23 I think you changed my mind, so let me check. Go ahead and describe for people the the four levels.
Heather: 04:32 Sure. So think of it as a continuum going from left to right. So on the far left is the lowest level of engagement and on the far right is the highest level. And so, the four levels from left to right start with non-compliance and then you move up to compliance and then, interested and absorbed. And so, I then took that continuum because the nice part about the continuum is that it’s linear. So it’s really easy to see that progression, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, what is it that might leverage someone to go to the left or right of that continuum? And so I took it and I bent it end to end. So ended up with a two by two matrix. And so, in that two by two matrix, you have the same four levels, but now there are variables that would cause someone to shift up or down or left to right.
Heather: 05:35 So if you are in the bottom, left-hand quadrant of that matrix, you are non-compliant. And really what that means is because along the horizontal axis is your relationship to the task. So left to right, you either don’t like it or you do, you love it. And then the vertical axis up and down, is your with extrinsic factors, being the relationship you have with the person assigning the tasks and/or the consequence, positive or negative for doing the task. So if you’re in that bottom left-hand quadrant of noncompliance, that means you don’t like the task, you don’t care about your relationship with the person assigning the task and you also don’t care about the consequence positive or negative for doing the task. And so I don’t like this, I don’t like you, I don’t care what happens to me if I do it or don’t.
Heather: 06:31 So then how do you shift to go from non-compliant to compliant? Well, that’s a vertical move, meaning there’s a shift in the relationship with the extrinsic, either person or consequence for doing the task. So non-compliant means I didn’t want to do it. Compliance still means I don’t want to do it, but I’m willing to do it if you change these variables. So it might mean I wouldn’t do this for anyone else, but grandma, I’ll do this for you because I love you grandma and yeah, I don’t want to disappoint you. Or, I wouldn’t do this for free, but if you pay me 50 bucks, now I’ll do it. Or, I wouldn’t do this before, but now you’re threatening to call my mom, so I would rather do this than have you call my mom so I’ll do it. So that’s an example of the movement within that framework.
Heather: 07:26 And once you start to think about these things in this way, again, when you’re seeing people behave, non-compliantly, you’re thinking, “oh, so this is what’s going on.” Or if they’re behaving compliantly, “Oh, okay. I get it. I have the right combination of relationship or consequence.” I do want to say that when somebody is being noncompliant, actually the first question we need to ask ourselves is are they able to do that task in the first place? Because if a task is too easy or too hard people don’t want to do the task and it really doesn’t matter about the relationship or the consequence. It’s that it’s too easy or too hard. We need to – since the people listening to this are coaches, right, or educators, they probably already know about the zone of proximal development which is, you know, that band of difficulty. So we want to be in that sweet spot actually, which is at the top. So we need to have a mental or physical stretch in order to achieve a feeling like this is where I’m supposed to be putting my energy.
Steve: 08:37 I was the beginning teacher trying to motivate kids to be compliant on tasks that they weren’t capable of doing.
Heather: 08:46 [laughter] Right?
Steve: 08:46 I took too long to figure that out.
Heather: 08:50 [laughter] We’ve all been there.
Steve: 08:50 My my favorite story of it was a student who I confronted and said he could do this work now, or he could go to the office. And he picked up his book and said, “see you later, Mr. Barkley,” and headed to the office. And I found myself an hour later with the principal asking me why the kid was there and I said, “because he wants to be.” I mean, it took me too long to realize that was a more pleasant place to be than than my classroom where I was pushing him on something that he couldn’t do. How about the movement then from compliant to, is it interested?
Heather: 09:24 Interested. Mhm.
Heather: 09:27 And so, at that point, we are making a horizontal shift, so left to right, which means we now have a better relationship with the task itself. What’s important to remember with regard to interested is two things. The first is, I feel like people probably roll their eyes when I say, if you change the task, you will get greater engagement because that seems like a no brainer. But I think we often fall into the trap of, I can’t change the task, this is what somebody else is telling me that I’m supposed to have the kids to do. And with that, I want to remind people that our job is to teach the standards. That’s the destination. But how students get there is dependent upon the curriculum and the instruction. And so, and there’s a lot of autonomy, even if you don’t have autonomy in the curriculum, because your district chose it for you or whatever the case may be.
Heather: 10:32 You do have a lot of autonomy in terms of how you instruct the kids that are in front of you. And so the easiest way to make that shift from left to right is through choice and voice opportunities. So you achieve that by keeping in mind, what are the standards that you want the kids to achieve? And then what are the different ways that they could demonstrate their learning of those standards? That’s the first thing. The second way to shift from – or the second important piece about being interested is that interested means that you still need extrinsics in order to be engaged in that work. So, by the way, interested is the lowest level of true engagement. Noncompliance and compliance are both forms of disengagement. Just because somebody is being compliant with the task doesn’t mean that they want to do it.
Heather: 11:32 They’re just willing to do it because of the extrinsic that is in play. Interested people enjoy doing what they’re doing, but when the bell rings, they leave for the next class. You don’t have to shush them out of the room, you know? When the unit is over, they’re not to continue to learn about whatever it is that they were just studying, even if they enjoy doing the work for the unit. So I think that’s really hard sometimes for educators to wrap their heads around because they want to feel like, wait, these kids, you know, they’re doing the work. They have smiles on their faces while they’re doing the work. Why should they need an extrinsic motivator in order to continue doing the work? In which case, I try to bring it back to adults. So most of the time, the thing that we’re most interested in as adults is our job and we get paid to do our
Heather: 12:37 And if I were to say to you, if you stopped getting a paycheck, would you continue to go to work? The answer is generally, no. And also if I ask, if all jobs paid the same, what would you choose to do? A lot of people actually might change their job. The final question that I ask regarding are you truly interested or at the highest level of engagement, absorbed, is when you have time off from work, with teachers, it’s usually Saturday or Sunday, do you want to do more of your work that you’re doing Monday through Friday on Saturday and Sunday? Or on Saturday and Sunday, are you choosing to do something else? Most people choose to do something else.
Steve: 13:22 So what’s your description of absorbed?
Heather: 13:27 So absorbed is the something else that you choose to do when when you don’t have to do your work anymore. Absorbed means
that you not only like the tasks you’re doing, but you love the task you’re doing and you actually are intrinsically motivated to do that task. So it’s not that you have to do it, you want to do it. When the bell rings, absorbed students didn’t hear the bell. Interested students will tell you about what they’re learning when you ask. Absorbed students will tell you about what they’re learning even when you don’t ask. They come to you. They say, “last night I went home and I found this out.” As adults, the the best example I have of what absorption looks like is our hobbies. Because what we get paid to do, we tend to be interested in.
Heather: 14:26 What we pay to do, we tend to be absorbed in. That’s for two reasons. The first is because we tend not to be as good at the things we’re absorbed in as we are the things we’re interested in because we spend 40 hours a week on the on the things that we’re interested in and we spend a fraction of that time on the things that we’re absorbed in. The other reason is that once you whatever you’re absorbed in and you try to get paid to do it, you now have an added level of pressure to that task. So my husband plays basketball and loves to play basketball, pays, you know, for a gym membership so he can play basketball. And I think he loves playing basketball more than an NBA player loves to play basketball because my husband doesn’t have to worry about, you know, the calories that he eats or the practices that he attends or paying our mortgage as a result of playing basketball. He just gets to play to play.
Steve: 15:30 Got it, got it. I’ve done an interesting one in in a workshop where coming up to a break, I’ll put this kind of challenging twister math problem up and and ask people to work on it. And and then after a while, I’ll say, “okay, folks, let’s take a break.” And then we come back and identify who stayed in the room, beause there’s always a handful of people who stayed in the room, didn’t take their break and were working on it all the way through the break. And there’s other people who couldn’t leave the room fast enough once I said, let’s take a break.
Heather: 16:10 [laughter]
Steve: 16:10 So Heather, I know that you talked about the fact that you got engaged in writing the book because of the experiences you had working with observation. And so, our listeners are people who are observing in classrooms a lot. So you want to share you the connections you made?
Heather: 16:34 Yeah. So I am a certified, trained trainer of the Danielson framework. And that happened before I actually had to use the Danielson framework as a administrator. When I was an administrator at first, I was going into classrooms and, you know, tallying up how many kids were doing what they were supposed to be doing. If they’re supposed to be reading, I’m going to tally up how many kids have their eyes on the book. And then I started to get some coaching from somebody who worked with the Danielson group. She was training us and was saying that we needed to be having our eyes on the kids, not on the teachers and that the kids should be doing so much work, mentally, should be thinking and engaged in their work that it should be like their brains are sweating. You know, the same way we physically sweat after we have a workout.
Heather: 17:39 And I realized that that’s not what I was really looking for when I was doing observations. And so, I think when we do observations, if we’re doing them to look for how many kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and doing tallies and paying attention to the work the teacher is doing like I once did, I think we’re doing it wrong. I think we’re looking for the wrong things and looking at the wrong people in the classroom. I think when it comes to teaching in general, we discount the planning that goes into it because engaging classrooms aren’t an accident. They don’t just happen. It’s not a spontaneous action. It’s through that careful planning that happens behind the scenes. And that’s where, you know, the brain sweat should come from the teachers. So that way, when we’re in classrooms, the brain sweat is coming from the kids.
Heather: 18:40 If we go back to what I said earlier about how do you create engagement, interest. It’s really about offering choice and voice. You have to really plan for that. And I forgot to say earlier that absorption is not the target for teachers in classrooms every day, for every kid, for every class. That bar is exceptionally high and I don’t want people to think that that’s what I think we should be aiming for. I think though, we should be aiming for interest, for 100% of the students in 100% of the classrooms, 100% of the time. And we should be exposing students to opportunities to learn about what’s absorbing to them and finding ways to allow them to tap into that in classrooms. And I don’t just mean, oh, this child likes soccer or this child likes dinosaurs because that it’s not easy to incorporate soccer and dinosaurs into most lessons because our learning standards have nothing to do with – generally speaking, with dinosaurs and soccer. But, there are behaviors around learning that kids probably really like or situations that they really like that they can get absorbed. I really respond to, you know, collaborating with other people or working independently, or it really fuels me when we are studying things that are connected to social justice or helping kids understand agency and advocacy. Those are the types of behaviors that I think we don’t often think about when we think about the highest level of engagement, absorption, because we think about topics rather than approaches or feelings.
Steve: 20:40 As I was listening to you, to what degree do you think that if I’m going to be observing in a teacher’s classroom and looking at engagement, that I really need to have some of the teacher’s thinking that went into the design and purpose of what the teacher has the students doing in order to to observe engagement and be able to give the teacher feedback that’s of meaning or value to the teacher. Am I – is that making sense?
Heather: 21:21 I think you’re asking, as I’m in a classroom and I’m seeing a teacher’s plan come to life, what feedback might – or what might I be looking for and what feedback might I give to acknowledge the planning that went into the lesson?
Steve: 21:40 Yeah. And almost, I need to know the planning – the thinking part of the planning, I almost need to know in order to gather feedback that would be meaningful.
Heather: 21:53 Yeah. It is much easier to know the thinking when you’re actually looking at a plan, which is why a pre-observation
conference is so important.
Steve: 22:04 Yeah. That’s what I’m thinking. Almost critical.
Heather: 22:04 Yes. And when you think about, even in coaching, right? You had that coaching cycle where you are collaborating and communicating prior to the implementation of whatever was being coached, right? That behavior action or whatnot. And then you reflect on that afterwards. You know, I think you would probably agree that the best feedback is both personalized and targeted. So please let me know what it is you’ve been working on so that I can explicitly look for that and give you feedback on what I was seeing from my perspective
Steve: 22:48 So it strikes me that engagement is a difficult thing to try to observe on a walkthrough.
Heather: 23:00 It is difficult if you’re only observing visually. If you, I don’t think you can – you can’t tell by looking if a child is
more than just compliant.
Steve: 23:14 Gotcha.
Heather: 23:15 And you can’t tell by looking if a child is more than just interested, unless you’re observing children talk about what they’re learning after they’ve been asked to move on to the next thing. And so it really – I used to go into classrooms and, you know, and talk with kids during the instruction. And I would say, you know, “easy, medium, or hard for you?” “Tell me why.” Or, “what is it you guys are doing? Tell me in your own words, and then how is that connected to what it is you’re doing?” You know, I think talking to kids when you’re in an observation should be common practice.
Steve: 24:06 Yeah. Actually, you’re getting feedback from the student to give the feedback to the teacher. That’s the important part of it.
Heather: 24:17 That’s right. And going back to your question earlier about the planning portion and the feedback, I do think that probably a lot of teachers minimize or undervalue that planning portion of the lesson particularly if they are not designing high levels of choice and voice in student interaction. Because, in which case, they’re more or less just planning their lecture. And if they’ve already done the lecture before multiple times, there’s not a lot that needs to go into that, right?
Steve: 24:57 I was running it through my head as you started describing it, that it takes a lot more work to plan for learning than it does to play it for teaching.
Heather: 25:09 Yes. Yes.
Steve: 25:09 Well, Heather, thank you so much for for spending this time with us. I will put a link to your website where folks can find your book in the lead-in to this blog. Why don’t you go ahead and say it for folks in case we got people out walking and they’ll remember what you said.
Heather: 25:31 Yeah, fantastic. My website is lyonsletters.com. And so Lyon, L Y O N S L E T T E R S .com. And on there, you’re going to get links to where to buy the book, but also resources from the book. So every visual that’s in the book is available on the website for free. All of the videos that I refer to in the book have links on the website. And then there’s also access to my blog, which I post a new blog every week during the school year. So I’d love for people to stop by.
Steve: 26:14 Terrific. And your, your book comes with with my recommendation out to the listeners. So thank you.
Heather: 26:21 Thank you.
Steve [Outro]: 26:23 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.