1. Do what works.
2. Stop doing what doesn’t work.
What is engagement?
Engagement is energized learning.
The Journal of Educational Psychology tells us:
“Children who are engaged show sustained involvement in learning activities accompanied by positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.” (Ellen A. Skinner and Michael J. Belmont, Vol. 85, No. 4, page 572)
If you seek to use an Engaged Homeschooling approach, some of your most important tasks as a homeschooling parent are
- to allow engagement to develop
- to stimulate engagement
- to recognize engagement
- to capitalize on engagement
- to be an example of engagement
- to enjoy engagement
How do we recognize engagement? Ben Johnson* explains one “classroom version” of engagement in his article for Edutopia, “How Do We Know if Students are Engaged?”:
In teacher-directed learning, you will see students…
- Paying attention (alert, tracking with their eyes)
- Taking notes (particularly Cornell)
- Listening (as opposed to chatting, or sleeping)
- Asking questions (content related, or in a game, like 21 questions or I-Spy)
- Responding to questions. . . .
- Following requests (participating, physical response, storytelling, Simon Says)
- Reacting (laughing, crying, shouting, etc.)
In student directed-learning, you will see students individually or in small groups…
- Reading critically (with pen in hand)
- Writing to learn, creating, planning, problem solving, discussing, debating, and asking questions
- Performing/presenting, inquiring, exploring, explaining, evaluating, and experimenting
- Interacting with other students, gesturing and moving
Other behaviors I see in engaged kids:
- Practicing without prodding
- Working on things at the edges of their abilities
- Requesting additional opportunities
- Wanting to learn from mentors, teachers, and coaches with greater expertise
- Creating original material (art, music, technology, dance, construction, engineering projects, etc.)
- Achieving “flow”
- Learning outside of designated “student” environments and situations — on the athletic field, in an apprenticeship, doing field work, playing music, in paid employment, as an entrepreneur, doing family chores or work, as a volunteer, through play
I’d also note that while Johnson sees things like “chatting” as lack of engagement, I think it just means that the learner (student) is not engaged in what the authority figure (teacher, administrator, or standards-expert) wants him or her to be engaged in. However, it doesn’t mean no engagement is occurring.
And, don’t confuse the lack of “attending behavior” with a lack of engagement. We traditionally think of students who are attending well, that is, “paying attention,” as those who are sitting up and looking at a teacher in a certain way, not doodling or looking off into the distance. However, focus, creative thinking, planning, and problem solving can look an awful lot like daydreaming to an outside observer.
Additionally, many kids learn best when their hands and bodies are busy. I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of novels I read to my young boys while they played in the sandbox, complete with their rumbling truck noises. They were engaged both in their play and in the books, which flies in the face of much traditional thinking about what people should look like when they are paying attention and learning.
(Yes, kids can learn to exhibit the proper etiquette and respect for participating in classes, meetings, sports practices, and activities — to look like they are paying attention and not distract others with inappropriate “busy” behavior. That’s another topic I’ll try to write on elsewhere, but my point here is that adults should be aware that looking engaged may not be the same thing as being engaged and, frequently, vice versa.)
A parent using an Engaged Homeschooling approach will ask:
- What activities and conditions seem to naturally create engagement in my child?
- What environment can I create that stimulates engagement in my child?
- What Tools of Engagement can I use to kindle engagement?
- When my child is engaged, how can I help him or her extend learning?
- Am I recognizing engagement when it occurs?
- How can I model engagement in my own life?
- Can I pare away activities, approaches, and circumstances that reduce engagement or block engagement completely — that aren’t working?
A couple more quotes from Ben Johnson’s* article “How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged”:
If true learning is to occur, then students have to be at the very least participants in the process, and not merely products.
The ultimate engagement is to put the learner in charge of learning. Create a rich learning environment and a motivation to learn, and the students do all the hard work of learning, while the teacher merely facilitates. It sounds so easy.
I do not minimize the hard work involved in creating those rich learning scenarios, custom-made motivators and engaging learning content. And it is a bit risky. Sometimes it works like a charm, and other times it would have been better to assign seat work. But we keep trying, improving, and enhancing until we get it right.
*Ben Johnson, quoted above, is a high school principal whose article I just happened to read. Edutopia is a website about public education. I include these quotes not because public education has historically been especially effective in creating engagement across its student population, but because these quotes are concise observations about the impact of engagement. These observations come not from some “fringe” of homeschoolers, but from within our society’s education establishment.
The notion that Engagement is key is not crazy talk that is happening only among homeschoolers.
However, while many educators understand the promise of Engagement, in my opinion, harnessing Engagement is probably at odds with standards-based accountability approaches, such as Common Core, and it probably is at odds with other current aspects of public education in the U.S., such as large class sizes, emphasis on developmentally inappropriate academics (for example, scripted reading “lessons” in preschool and kindergarten), insufficient student autonomy, lack of support for authentic vocational programs, a shortage of (or discouragement of) parental involvement, suppression of teacher initiative and academic freedom, and corporate and political agendas.
These challenges in public education actually break the Rules of Engagement (see above).
Standardized learning doesn’t create engagement, pushing early skills (reading) in kids who aren’t old enough to acquire them doesn’t create engagement, and telling people what to do or be interested in — be they teachers or students — doesn’t create engagement.
Homeschooling, however, is much more nimble, and we’re seeing some instances of some scalability, as families get together for learning co-operatives and exercise choices (autonomy) as they organize and participate in library and community programs for and with a diverse population.
Homeschoolers can bring Engagement to the forefront of education.
Start by using Engaged Homeschooling in your own family.