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When it comes to student engagement, the eyes don’t have it

By Nancy Flynn — February 19, 2010 3 min read

“What do you mean I only got a 2? They were all on task. They were all looking at me.”

It’s no longer about the eyes and whether or not the students are looking at the teacher or have their books open. Student engagement is about the mind - engaging the mind and expressing it through dialogue with peers. Dialogue that is not intended just to answer the teacher’s questions, but dialogue that is focused on a particular topic and includes accountable talk. We call it think, pair, share, turn and talk, Socratic seminar, etc., but it boils down to having everyone accountable for the thinking, the discussion and, ultimately, the learning. Not only does it engage students who may otherwise not be inclined to do the work, it helps those students who may not understand the work to learn it by doing it with peers.

My lesson feedback sheets include three rubrics - one for rigor, one for student and teacher engagement, and one for clear expectations. The rubric for student and teacher engagement forces teachers to think about how students contribute, augment, and assess their knowledge and understanding of a particular lesson or topic. To receive a 5, the highest score on the rubric, there must be evidence that all students participate in the lesson through engaging their minds and their voices using either simple engagement strategies such as turn & talk and think, pair, share, or other, more complex student engagement strategies such as Socratic seminars and, students are using accountable talk on the focused topic. Below a 3 on the rubric, there is no evidence of student engagement strategies regardless of how focused their eyes are on the teacher or whether or not their books are open to the correct page. So, even if all of the students appear “on task” it doesn’t necessarily mean their minds are engaged, and those who know how to avoid being called on are masters at looking on task even if their minds are far from the task at hand. In other words, if they only “appear” to be on task, it is a 2.

While I thought my rubric was slightly progressive, after all, there is much more to it than just looking engaged, I realized after listening to Scott McLeod’s presentation on the need to prepare students for the digital, global age, that this “new” aspect of student engagement that I am referring to in my rubric is a model of student engagement for the industrial age, not for the digital age. While we are still trying to get teachers to release the power of learning to the students, we are currently doing it in a two-dimensional, very outdated manner. And the fact that we are just now looking at student engagement models that put us actually behind the times is truly pathetic.

Now think about student engagement that involves discussing and learning the work in the classroom from an expert outside of the classroom- not just with the students physically next to each other - without leaving the room and students literally having the information at their fingertips. That is a digital age model of student engagement. What should be on my rubric for student engagement in 2010 is: Students interact with experts and/or students outside of their own classroom via video, skype, texting, e-mailing, surfing, and/or blogging. This type of student engagement not only involves obtaining the information, it involves thinking about where to find it and how to access it.

I mentioned to my tech specialist that I think we should consider looking at a classroom set of the new iPads that will be available this spring. Her response was, “Like we need to give them more opportunities to surf the ‘net. They already do too much of that when they should be doing something else.” But that is exactly what we need them for; to give students power to find the knowledge they are seeking. Now I know what she and other teachers are thinking: How are we going to monitor whether or not students are on task when they have an iPad in their hands? My answer to that is the same way we monitor whether or not they are reading along or doing the same math problems. We still circulate around the room, interact with the students, and do the turn and talk, or share with your neighbor to engage student discussion. But now, the quality of the information has changed. It’s become enriched by sources outside of the room. My rubric would still include active participation, but it would include the use of technology. That is, the students using the technology, not the teacher.

Nancy Flynn 2/19/10

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