Recipe For Engagement

The famous command – in my childhood anyway – of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.
After this simple utterance, his ship instantly accelerated to warp speed.  Easy.  Or so it looked.
Warp speed is perhaps only slightly more complicated than ensuring students, of vastly different abilities and interests, are engaged learners.
Entering a classroom, you can see, hear and feel when students are engaged.  They are focused in their work:  loud during group work and silent during individual study; at times eager to be left alone when reading or viewing while at other times eager to listen to and share their ideas with groups to develop understanding.  They ask questions and are keen to answer them. They believe that what they are learning about is important enough that others should be aware of it too, so they are keen to share their learning with peers and adults.
Engagement is so essential to teaching and learning that a short blog post could only scratch the surface of what factors encourage it.  So below, I will share just a few of the ingredients of engagement I learned about in conversations with BICS parents, students and educators.
Saffron Gurney has taught at BICS formally as an Artist in Residence, and informally, working with her daughters’ classes teaching art.  When one enters a classroom setup by Mrs. Gurney, the mood is in stark contrast to the busy hallway from which students enter.  A change in lighting, a projected image to capture attention, sounds from a stereo, the teacher taking on the role of a famous artist (Emily Carr for her role as Artist in Residence in 2013), artefacts that allow the mind to focus and wonder, all suggest to the learner that something different and interesting is happening.  In designing learning, Mrs. Gurney considers, “Is there an emotion that could move the student: Humour, compassion, sadness, playfulness?  Can the student imagine themselves in a story, a scenario, a scene, a setting, a time?”  This shift in mood encourages the learner to adapt to a new situation and this adaptation engages the brain in figuring out what is happening, how it is different from normal and develops a sense that something special and worth paying attention to is happening.  In the words of Grade 6-7 teacher Laura Magrath, “Engagement equals variety and multi-faceted learning. Adding surprises to how we teach lessons, changing the usual to the unusual, embracing alternatives, engaging students as teachers,” all help to captivate and sustain students’ attention.
At other times, familiarity stimulates engagement.  In the Reggio Emilia approach to education, which BICS teachers Elizabeth Watson and Heather Stephens are learning more about, the classroom is designed with natural elements that students innately connect with and find familiar – natural light, neutral colours, learning materials from nature that allow opportunities for self-expression such as sticks, stones and leaves.  Such elements create a calm environment where a subtle invitation to learning, such as the teacher asking students to ask questions about a new artefact in the classroom, is enough to pique students’ interest in a topic, especially when students are given opportunities to reflect upon past learning and make connections to current study.
When the teacher documents past learning of students and shares this learning with them, the learner begins to see themselves as being engaged in a learning journey, of acquiring experiences that they can utilize to process new information, making them increasingly comfortable and capable in responding to new situations as it connects with what they are already familiar.
There is far more to write about this approach, but what was most interesting in my conversations with Mrs. Watson and Mrs. Stephens was how engaged they were as learners.  In addition to the joys of working collaboratively together and with BICS Principal Jennifer Pardee, I suspect their engagement had something to do with how obviously relevant their learning was: they could see the direct impact their learning had on something important – improved student learning.
One can argue that students do not have enough life experience to find all of their learning relevant.  For example, most students have not had enough exposure to carpentry to understand the importance of measurement and geometry.  But teachers share with students “real world” applications of their learning and some learning is hands on where students learn by doing and therefore cannot help but see that this learning makes them capable of doing more, a satisfying feeling that leads to engagement, particularly if students believe what they can do is useful and relevant to their lives.  Sarah Haxby, our school’s Community School Coordinator notes, “Through the BICS Garden Program we grow a lot learning; both in the classroom, and in the BICS garden.  Students really engage with the activities from planting seeds to every Kindergarten student picking and eating a sun-warmed, ripe apple to Grade 7 students discovering new flavours such as asking if they may please eat more kale flowers because they are yummy!”  This type of learning is not just relevant for the future, but applicable now. While students may not fully appreciate the importance of food security, they can see the very real applications of their learning on understanding where food comes from and are learning to grow their own food; a skill not just useful in the future, but relevant now.
Most students like to be challenged, but not too challenged.  In speaking with many Grade 4 and 5 students, it was obvious that students liked subjects they considered challenging but that they were good at.  When I asked one student about times when she wished class would never end, she responded: “Writing.  Writing makes me think.  It is challenging.”Flow.png
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “Flow,” a state where learners are captivated in the task at hand, learners typically have high skill level and significant challenge.  The diagram to the right is Mr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work.  To engage students, the teacher must create the conditions for learners to be challenged enough to cause improvement which seems to be an inherently satisfying feeling, while not being overly challenged so that they will be frequently or constantly unsuccessful leading to a belief they are not good at a task or subject.  The goal in finding this balance is not that students reach a feeling of being good at something, rather that students understand that with hard work, they will get better at something.
Students performed brilliantly at BICS’ Winter Concert.  No doubt, they didn’t start off sounding so great.  For students to engage in the early stages of learning, they must trust their teacher that if they practise their role and do their very best, over time, their learning will pay off with a rewarding result, in this case, performances of which they were proud.  Steve Karagianis, one of BICS’ music teachers, notes when someone is trying something new, the teacher must, “Help the students believe they can do it and they will.”  Not all students are born with a high level of self-efficacy, and when playing a new instrument for the first time, guidance is needed from a trusted teacher to get students through the times when they themselves can’t see or even envision success.
Designing an engaging learning environment is a complex and dynamic process.  At times, there are opportunities to make learning explicitly relevant and at other times the teacher must rely upon the trust students place in them that learning will be interesting and will become relevant.  Many students need a familiar learning environment where they can focus their attention and at other times they need variety to draw their attention.  And students must see their learning as paying off; they must feel the satisfaction that comes from becoming more capable, as an artist, a musician, a mathematician, a scientist, and a learner.  The tools with which these ingredients are mixed will continue to change, but I suspect novelty, familiarity, relevance, challenge and trust will remain key to engaging students in learning.

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