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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Ellin Oliver Keene: ‘Engaging Children’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 06, 2018 9 min read
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Ellin Oliver Keene agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning.

Ellin Oliver Keene is an author and consultant who works to improve literacy teaching and learning throughout the US and abroad. She is the author of six books on reading comprehension, discourse in the classroom, and, most recently on helping students learn to become deeply engaged and independent in their learning.

LF: Some phrases that struck me in the book were that its purpose is to “examine the conditions that lead to engagement” and “what ignites the drive to learn.”

Can you summarize your perspective on student motivation?

Ellin Oliver Keene:

I have noticed, for the length of my 35-year career, that we teachers tend to take responsibility for “motivating students"--which implies doing something to them. In my own classroom, I felt that it was my job to run around - it felt like I was trying to keep 25 plates spinning simultaneously--to keep everyone happy and “on task” (a term I now deplore) Essentially, I was persuading them that they should be excited about what we were learning. It was exhausting! And, it didn’t work! I can’t engage a student; ultimately the student has to choose to engage.

However, as teachers, we can create the conditions in which engagement thrives (I have a long section focused on those conditions), model what engagement looks and feels like for us, and we can observe students who are engaged, catch them in the act as it were. We need to discuss engagement with each student--what engaged experiences have they had, what, for him or her, is the difference between compliance, motivation, and engagement? We also need to have those discussions with the whole class. We need to talk about what engagement feels, looks, smells, and tastes like for individuals, for the class community! And, we need to share stories of our own engagement, in and outside of school.

We need to rethink the notion that we’re wholly responsible for student motivation and engagement and instead focus on modeling and discussing engagement with students so that they can, gradually, become more and more responsible for their own engagement. Ultimately, teachers and even parents can’t be with them as they move through life--we can’t, nor would we want to be responsible for their motivation and engagement. Most of us didn’t learn those lessons until college or later into adulthood; I want our kids to have discussions now about what engagement really is and how they can work toward engagement.

I am not suggesting that we just hope for the best and let the kids engage or not as they choose--we want to weave discussion and modeling about engagement--teaching them what engagement is--throughout the year. It’s not a unit, it’s not a lesson, it’s an ongoing focus of conversation. “How engaged did you feel as you read today? What influenced your engagement (or lack thereof)? What are the conditions that help you engage?” These are quick conversations that raise students’ awareness of their own level of engagement and pave the way to them engaging more independently.

LF: You distinguish between “internal motivation” and “engagement.” Can you explain that difference?

Ellin Oliver Keene:

In doing the research for this book, I discovered that there are as many definitions of motivation and engagement as there are writers who have explored the topic, and many use the terms synonymously. I decided that I needed to get into classrooms to explore this difference for myself. After all, I’m writing about children’s engagement, it makes sense to study in their classrooms.

For years, I observed kids at work and affirmed that internal motivation is a very positive state; it’s something that we want kids to experience, but it is often tied to an “other”. For example, think about how hard many of your students will work for positive response from you. They love and admire you (well, most of them!) and they want very much to please you (especially in elementary school) and they love and admire their peers and seek to do things that will yield positive reinforcement from them (as they get older). Internal motivation often comes from inspiration--we’re driven to read a book because a trusted friend or teacher recommended it. We are motivated because we want to feel we belong or earn someone’s respect or praise.

Internal motivation often leads to engagement, but true engagement is the moment when something you were motivated to do becomes important to you for its own sake. I provide an observation guide to help teachers discern when students are merely compliant, when they are motivated and when engaged. Engagement is often equated with Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), the sensation that time is standing still and that one is entirely absorbed in a task or in learning. The learner is caught up intellectually, emotionally, even aesthetically. Engagement begins as a deep absorption for the learner, but often culminates in a sense of how the learner’s passionate interest matters in the larger world, has implications for social justice, for example. I have described engagement as resting on four key pillars: intellectual urgency, emotional resonance, perspective bending, and an aesthetic experience. Most of us don’t experience all four simultaneously, but teachers can share these concepts with kids, thereby increasing the likelihood that students will know how to engage themselves.

LF: Student agency is discussed in the book. Can you elaborate on what it is and why you think it’s important?

Ellin Oliver Keene:

When a student is agentive, he or she has the sense that they are very much the kind of learner who can take on a particularly challenging task, try something new with confidence. Agentive kids aren’t as put off by early missteps; they’re willing to try again to learn or perform in some way. To me, engagement and agency are intertwined in a profound way. Engagement often grows out of a question of passionate interest for a child and when they dig in to inquire, they’ll run into obstacles and then have another go!

Engagement often leads to agency, but the reverse can be true, as well. A student who has a strong sense of agency will often be the one who explores ideas enthusiastically and becomes engaged. It’s important to know that all students can be agentive and engaged. It’s really a matter of the adults in their lives initiating the conversation with them, pointing out times when they showed agency and engagement and talking about the conditions necessary to repeat those experiences.

I’m very concerned that there is an underlying belief among some that some kids just are agentive or tend to be engaged and others aren’t. All kids, with the right modeling and through discussion with others, can be increasingly agentive and engaged throughout their lives.

LF: Can you explain the “four pillars of engagement”? Perhaps we can republish the chart you use in the book to help explain it?

Ellin Oliver Keene:

Yes, here’s the chart:

Here’s the adult language that provides a bit more detail about each of the components of engagement:

  • Engagement is born of intellectual urgency - engaged children often tell us through talk and action that they “have to know more about ...”. They are willing to put time and considerable effort into learning more. They drive the learning with their own questions. Often, the experiences, concepts and stories in which children are deeply engaged have conflict embedded. We’re drawn to conflict and lean toward a resolution. Children are intrigued by the conflict and may want to act to mitigate a problem in their community or the world. They believe that they just have to apply more attention to this text or idea.

  • Engagement is often born of an emotional resonance to ideas - engaged children can describe experiences when a concept is imprinted in the heart as well as the mind. They are far more likely to remember the idea because a strong emotion is tied to a concept they’re learning or a text they’re reading. They may want to share their emotional reactions through writing, conversation, or art.

  • Engagement is deepened by perspective bending - engaged children are aware of how others’ knowledge, emotions and beliefs shape their own. When children talk and write about their beliefs, they are more engaged, they have a stake in the learning. They may be open to changing their thinking or beliefs when challenged and particularly relish the idea that their ideas can impact other learners. Their beliefs may bend, but rarely break.

  • Engagement is often connected to a learner’s sense of the aesthetic - engaged children can describe moments when they find something beautiful or extraordinary, captivating, hilarious or unusually meaningful. They may speak of a book or illustration, a painting or idea in science or math that seems to have been created just for them. They are drawn back to view it, discuss it, read again and again. They claim the idea as their own.

LF: You discuss “perspective-bending.” What is it and why do you think it’s important?

Ellin Oliver Keene:

Perspective bending is often a path to and characteristic of engagement. It’s the lovely tension (yes, I meant those words to go together!) that emerges between two people with different life experiences, opinions, and beliefs. It’s being open to another person’s ideas and even allowing those ideas to change our own a bit. Notice that I didn’t call it perspective breaking!

As kids get older, they develop strong beliefs and opinions, but even young children have a strong sense of what is fair and what is not. We humans are hard-wired to form opinions and beliefs. Perspective bending is engaging in a (civil) discussion or even an argument (when did that become a four-letter word?) with receptivity to others’ ideas as well as a desire to share and persuade someone else. I find that when students are given the space to share opinions and beliefs, integrate some evidence, and interact with those whose opinions vary, they become engaged very quickly.

I also think it is vitally important for students to understand others’ life experiences that are different from their own. We want them to understand that their way of living in the world is not necessarily the right way and that others’ perspectives and lived experiences bring important depth and dimension to the way they view the world and take action to improve it.

In a society which seems less concerned with learning from others’ opinions and more focused on screaming our own, I think we face a critical juncture for students. Will they learn to cling to their own opinions, voicing them loudly and often without evidence, or will they learn to engaged in civil discussion in which there is a chance that they will learn from and even bend their own perspectives?

LF: Thanks, Ellin!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.