On “Engagement” as a Buzzword

I generally excuse myself from attending any conference session whose title contains one of the latest education buzzwords. Last year, as I sat in my hotel room flipping through a convention book, I told my two friends and colleagues, “This year, I will not be attending any session that contains the phrase ‘21st century.’”

Another buzzword that has recently infiltrated the lexicon of school districts everywhere is “engagement.” Now please note that there is valid research to support the concept of engagement; one of my mentors has pointed me toward the work of Brian Cambourne and Frank Smith for a more nuanced approach to the concept. My concern is that the use of the buzzword has perhaps diminished the ideas found in the research.

The buzzword “engaging” seems to have replaced “relevant” in our educational language, but the simplistic philosophy seems the same: teachers should create lessons that hook students by illustrating concepts in “kid-friendly” terms and through popular adolescent interests and activities.

In this model, the teacher stands in between the student and the supposedly esoteric and difficult knowledge. The teacher’s job is to translate that knowledge into a palatable form for the student who, we believe, is so distracted by adolescent hormones, socioeconomic factors, and social media that only entertaining “knowledge-lite” will do.

“Just help them pass the test and graduate,” I have heard. “What does Renaissance literature have to do with their lives today?” “They can’t relate to that . . . find some article or story that is about their own lives,” we say. I have said these statements myself.
Today, I find multiple problems with this focus on creating engaging classrooms through what is, essentially, entertainment. Here are a few:

    1. This approach still assumes a one-size-fits-all perspective to engaging kids, assuming that kids’ interests are in a relatively small range.

    2. This approach assumes that the authority and significance of the knowledge is bounded by the interest of the student. On the contrary, knowledge itself has its own authority, and part of being human is learning to submit ourselves to the wisdom of ages. Furthermore, I am grateful that my 16 year old self did not determine what would be relevant for my life.

    3. The limiting of knowledge to what will “engage” students teaches students that their interests reign supreme. This is a dangerous position for any human being, but especially for the young who have yet to shed their narcissism, a quality that can be frustrating but is developmentally quite natural.

    4. In catering to adolescent narcissism, we prevent kids from experiencing the perspective of “other” that would help them to shed self-absorption. Adolescents benefit from a range of experiences and perspectives; we deprive them of these formative moments if we assume there are limited ways in which to engage them.

    5. Deprived of experience of other, students will fail to develop the level of empathy they need to interact with other human beings in search of a better world.

    6. This approach places unrealistic pressure on the educator to be familiar with the ever-changing nuances of popular culture and the speed of new technologies rather than growing in a deep understanding of principles, stories, values, and methods of thought that have lasted for ages. This pressure creates a kind of frenetic panic in the educator who must worry that he or she is unfamiliar with the newest technology, music, games, sports, or celebrity gossip. This worry crowds the solitude and peace that is necessary for the depth of thought and insight required for teaching.

    7. In addition to lending too much authority to the student, in turn this approach lends too much power to the teacher. The teacher becomes a gatekeeper between the students and the knowledge.

    8. This gatekeeping power becomes a sort of pseudo-authority for the teacher. I believe two qualities lend actual authority to a teacher: 1) his or her deep understanding of and interaction with the content of the course and 2) empathy

Please note again: I do believe in creating a classroom atmosphere that “engages” students in learning. I simply believe that our current discussion of classroom engagement is still an overly top-down approach that does not fully take into account student diversity, adolescent psychology, teacher health, or the intrinsic value of knowledge.

What are some authentic and healthful ways to create classroom engagement? How do we separate and perhaps rescue the underlying research-based principles from the buzzword?

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