Podcast: Tech Tools and Student Engagement - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Tech Tools and Student Engagement

Tech Tools and Student Engagement

Heather Lyon, the author of, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn, It’s a Narwahl” and “The Big Book of Engagement Strategies,” shares her insights on student engagement and teacher strategies from her new book, “50 Ways to Engage Students with Google Apps.” Teachers’ knowledge and understanding of pedagogical choices is key to tech tools tapping student engagement.

Find Heather’s many resources here.

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Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.390] – Steve

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:27.160] – Steve

Tech tools and student engagement. Heather Lyon is returning to our podcast today. She previously shared insights from her book, “Engagement is Not a Unicorn, it’s a Narwhal.” That book was followed by “The Big Book of Engagement Strategies.” Heather, who is an assistant superintendent in Western New York, is joining us today to highlight a recent book that she co-authored, “50 Ways to Engage Students with Google Apps.” Welcome, Heather.

[00:00:59.980] – Heather

Thank you so much for having me back.

[00:01:02.470] – Steve

It’s great to have you here. I really enjoyed and did quite a bit of follow-up with your work from the last time we were on a call, so I was pleased to see there was a new book I could connect with you on and bring you back. In the previous work, and I saw also in this book, you start with an explanation of engagement being at four different stages. I’m thinking that would be a good spot for us jump in.

[00:01:31.290] – Heather

Sure. I call this the engagement continuum. And so from left to right on the continuum, you go from the lowest levels of engagement to the highest levels of engagement. Those Four levels are non-compliant, which is I’m not doing it. Compliant, okay, fine. I’ll do it. Interested, oh, I can do this. And absorbed, which is don’t interrupt me, I really want to do this thing. And so those are the four levels, and they are universal, regardless if we’re talking about students or teachers or in school or out of school, these levels still apply.

[00:02:15.130] – Steve

It was four years back when I looked back to see, Engagement’s Not a Unicorn, and I’m wondering in the work that you’ve done since then and the books that you’ve written since then, I’m wondering what some of the things that you’ve uncovered about views that people have, educators, students, maybe even parents. What are you finding is out there when you talk to people about engagement?

[00:02:42.430] – Heather

I think there’s still a misunderstanding or misconception regarding what engagement is and is not. I think that we still don’t have a lot of consistency about what we’re talking about when we say the word engagement. More people just need to buy my books or read my stuff. But honestly, we cannot see engagement in that we can’t trust our eyes. What we need to do is trust our ears. We need to talk to people when they’re doing the things that they’re doing and to ask them where their minds are in relation to the task at hand. I say this because compliant students look a lot like interested students, and compliance is actually a level of disengagement, not engagement, because I’m doing this not because I want to do this task, but because I am trying to avoid the negative consequence if I don’t do it, or I’m trying to obtain the positive consequence if I do it. So my classic example for that is a non-compliant person doesn’t take out the garbage, but a compliant person will take out the garbage. Why? Well, sometimes it’s because person who they care about asked them to do it.

[00:04:02.570] – Heather

I wasn’t going to do it, but grandma asked me to do it. I’ll do it for grandma. Or I wasn’t going to do it, but you’re offering me $10 for taking out the garbage. I’ll take out the garbage. Or I wasn’t going to do it, but now you’re going to fine me $10 if I don’t take out the garbage. Okay, I’ll take out the garbage. But compliance doesn’t mean interested. By the way, that’s probably not a great example because nobody is interested in taking out the garbage necessarily. So you’re likely not going to achieve high levels of engagement with taking out the garbage, but you get the point. Another lesson that I’ve learned is that there are certain times when engagement is really not something that you’re going to see very commonly even if you have a really good relationship and even if you have some strong positive or negative consequences. I live with three teenagers who I love and they love me, and yet getting them to clean their rooms is like asking them to give me a kidney sometimes. So all things being equal, people don’t have an alternative in place for the task.

[00:05:23.510] – Heather

I expect you to have a clean room. You’re going to have a clean room. We’re not negotiating what this task is going to be. Engagement, even with high levels of relationships or high interactions with positive or negative motivators, it’s very unlikely you’re going to get a teenager who is going to get excited about cleaning their room.

[00:05:48.260] – Steve

So what I’m really hearing is that at times, compliant is the appropriate behavior. I mean, I would say I probably file my taxes in a compliant way.

[00:06:01.560] – Heather

Yes. I’ve never met anybody, even an accountant, who is engaged with paying taxes. They may be interested or absorbed in doing the taxes, but paying the taxes, you want to be compliant, that’s the goal, or you’re going to have to pay the price of being non-compliant. The other piece about this, too, that is probably important to note is that absorption, which is the highest level of engagement, is a special place, but nobody is absorbed in everything. We’re just not wired to achieve that level of engagement in everything that we do. So absorption is a wonderful place to visit, but it’s not the place that I would expect in schools for all students all day, all the time. It’s just not possible. But interested, that sweet spot of I like this task and the consequences that I get for doing this task, that’s definitely a place that we should be aiming for every day for every student.

[00:07:09.310] – Steve

So let me try my listening skills. I’m getting a picture that as a teacher, I would want to plan to hit interested students as much as I could. I want to create opportunities for absorption and accept compliance at times.

[00:07:31.600] – Heather

Yes. And when it comes to absorption, I think we often default to the things that people would be absorbed in. And generally speaking, we’re absorbed in our hobbies. Absorbing tasks are things actually that we pay to do. They tend not to be things we get paid to do. And I’m talking about payment in terms of grades for students or payment in terms of money for adults. Because quite honestly, we don’t spend the same amount of time and we don’t have the same amount of training in the things that we’re absorbed in as the things that we’re interested in. So for my profession, I get paid to do my profession, but I know that I’m only interested in it. And by the way, I love my job. I love it. But at the end of the day, I don’t want to continue doing that work. I want to move on to something that I’m not as good at, that I find pleasure in doing, that I don’t have to worry about payment. And that’s really how you know if you’re interested or absorbed. What happens when you have the option to continue doing that thing that you get paid for, or do you continue to do that work, or do you move on to something else?

[00:08:44.840] – Heather

I really enjoy moving on to something else, and that is a very human response to it. But going back to my point, we do not always pay attention to the fact that people are absorbed in things, but they’re also absorbed in a emotions. And we can create emotional experiences for students, even if we can’t connect them to the things, their hobbies that they’re interested in. So emotions being, I really care about leadership. I care about being an advocate. I want to engage in a debate with other people. And so we can create conditions in schools to find leadership opportunities in this classroom setting. We can find ways to connect advocacy. We can find ways to do debate, even within a math class or something where it is a little more content-driven or black and white than perhaps like an English classroom or a social studies classroom.

[00:09:45.050] – Steve

That emotions thing is a real good point. Actually, what flashed in my head as you were describing it was times that I’ve done things like worked in a soup kitchen or something.

[00:09:57.840] – Heather


[00:09:59.580] – Steve

Wasn’t the work of washing the dishes or sweeping with the broom, but the emotion with the group that was engaged in the process actually, to get to that level.

[00:10:10.930] – Heather

That’s right.

[00:10:13.770] – Heather

So asking students, what do you care about? What types of learning experiences do you enjoy? And then finding ways to connect the content to those types of experiences or emotions are really high leverage points for engagement.

[00:10:32.350] – Steve

So I think you’ve touched on this, but I want to give you a chance to take it a little bit further. What would you describe as variables that impact student engagement?

[00:10:43.760] – Heather

Yeah. So the continuum that I spoke about goes from left to right. But there’s also what I created, which is the engagement matrix. So I want people, because they’re listening, to picture a two by two matrix or a window pane with variables along the horizontal and vertical axis. So along the horizontal is your relationship to the task. So you either don’t like it or you do like it, and that goes from left to right. But the vertical variables are your relationship with the person assigning the task and/or the consequence, positive or negative, for doing the task. Those are the variables. Do you like what you’re doing? That’s the first question to ask. Because if you don’t like what you’re doing, the follow-up is, did you do it anyway? If the answer is no, you’re non-compliant. If the answer is yes, you’re compliant. Do you like what you’re doing? Yes. Would you continue doing it if you were allowed to stop? If the answer is no, you’re interested. If the answer is yes, you’re absorbed.

[00:11:53.240] – Steve

Got you. So what led to connecting your interest in engagement with the Google tools?

[00:12:03.900] – Heather

Yeah. So my co-author is Alice Keeler, and she is a Google expert. She is a tech expert. One of the things that she says is, I’ve never met a spreadsheet I didn’t like. She and I were connected through a mutual friend, and she’s very passionate about supporting great teaching and helping teachers become great teachers, as am I. But her strengths have to do with the tech side of things, and my strengths were around engagement. She asked if I wanted to collaborate on writing a book, and I was very excited to do so.

[00:12:50.420] – Steve

As I was doing a little research, I found this statement that you made that you said, “for Google tools to tap into engagement, teachers have to have an understanding of pedagogical choices. I’m wondering if you’d expand on that a little bit.”

[00:13:07.950] – Heather

Yeah, sure. I was an English teacher once upon a time, and I, unfortunately, it was not uncommon that I would assign an essay, here is the task for students to do. And by the way, they were no more excited to respond to my singular prompt as I was to read the dozens of responses to that singular prompt. I am not lying or exaggerating when I tell you that I would cry grading because it was just such a slog. And it wasn’t that they were bad writers. It was that their lack of choice and voice related to the task that they had to do was disengaging for them. And then having to grade these things that they were disengaged with was disengaging for me. And what I know now and understand there now is that really I had more options for me as a teacher, and I should have been giving them more options as students. It didn’t have to be one essay prompt that they were responding to. It could have been two essay prompts, but also a third choice to say, here’s the target learning intended for this task. Propose something that would achieve that end – student, you propose something that would achieve that end that isn’t these two choices.

[00:14:50.190] – Heather

But as well, the pedagogical opportunities that teachers have available to them are often limited, not not by external factors, but our own internal paradigms or willingness to think outside of the box. And so in the book, that’s why there’s 50 ways to engage students with Google Apps, because there’s so many different ways that this can be achieved.

[00:15:19.850] – Steve

So you want to give us two or three examples of what someone would find jumping into the text?

[00:15:28.780] – Heather

Yeah, sure. So honestly, one of my favorite strategies, utilizing a shared technology platform. It could be Google, it doesn’t have to be. But I love using Google Slides, which is really just their version of PowerPoint as a means to have multiple students in the same document working at the same time. But they have their own special slide that they might be working on, but have the ability to see what others are doing so that they can simultaneously learn from others. But also it demonstrates how important social interaction is to learning, meaning they learn from others. And it also creates a different paradigm when it comes to vulnerability, because at first, when you’re putting your stuff out there and you know that other people are going to see it at the same time, there’s some level of, uh-oh. But as you go through that, you’re like, oh, no, this is not, uh-oh, this is really good because I can see that other people are in the same boat as me. Isn’t it funny how often we think we’re the only one who is thinking this or feeling whatever the case may be? So that would be strategy nine and thinking about encouraging group discussion in the book.

[00:16:56.270] – Heather

Alice has these amazing add-ons that you can go and get for free in the Chrome store. There’s this amazing strategy, scratching the mystery. Just like lottery scratchers, a lottery ticket, is this opportunity to have this random choice that students are given because they’re revealing the thing that’s underneath that’s telling them what to do. And there’s also a strategy later in the book about aiming for mastery, where you’re really going to have multiple bites of the apple. So in schools, we create this system where you have to be perfect the first time, which is really antithetical to how we operate as human beings. Can you imagine if the first time a child learned to talk or the first word they said, which is usually “Da,” which is the approximation of dad or daddy, right? Can you imagine if we were like, no, actually, that’s incorrect. That’s incorrect. You’re going to fail. We’re going to mark that down. Next time you do it, it’s probably still going to be Da, you’re probably going to get a failing grade for this, kiddo. Sorry. And if we responded to children, like infants that way, imagine how much longer it might take them to actually acquire the skills that they acquire.

[00:18:34.430] – Heather

Because in fact, when they say, Da, we’re over the moon about it. We’re clapping, we’re celebrating, we’re FaceTiming our family. Listen to what the baby said! Imagine if we took that paradigm, that structure into school settings. You didn’t get it, but oh, my gosh, look at what you did get. It’s not finished yet. You’re not there yet, but you are on your way. This is amazing.

[00:19:02.750] – Steve

I’m laughing because I’m studying German on Duolingo. When I get three wrong in a row, it throws a celebration. It says making mistakes is a wonderful way to learn. Right at the time that you think I can’t get one more wrong or I’m going to quit, I’m not even going to finish the lessonm up comes the celebration and on I go to the next trial.

[00:19:38.620] – Heather

Imagine if we did that more in schools.

[00:19:42.850] – Steve

I’m not sure I caught the connection to what it is – what does the app do on that?

[00:19:48.970] – Heather

So we suggest creating a Google form with a drop-down for each of the key standards that students must show mastery on. It gives them this way of tracking their progress over time.

[00:20:03.300] – Steve

So, yeah, progress being the key motivator that I see that I’m making that.

[00:20:10.370] – Heather

That’s right.

[00:20:11.530] – Steve

It was also motivation back to the teacher.

[00:20:14.380] – Heather

Yes. Right.

[00:20:17.130] – Steve

Well, listen, thanks so much for coming back on and joining me. And I know from my visits off and onto your site that you offer a lot of free resources there for people. I want to tell people a little bit about what’s available on your site and how to find it and how to find the book?

[00:20:38.250] – Heather

All the books are available on Amazon or barnsandnoble.com, and in terms of my website, it is lyonsletters.com L-Y-O-N-S-L-E-T-T-E-R-S. And on the site, there’s nothing that you need to buy or pay for. I post all of the images that are in all three of the books, any links that are in any of the books, any videos that are referenced in any of the books. They’re all there. It’s a one-stop shop. It will ask you to subscribe to the website, but it’s free, and you’ll just get a weekly blog post from me that you can disregard if you want to, but they’re lovely.

[00:21:26.290] – Steve

I was just going to put in a promo I get that weekly post from you and enjoy it, both the motivational aspects of it plus the way that you personalize it. So it goes out with my recommendation to folks. Thank you so much.

[00:21:50.450] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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