Engagement vs Entertainment

I’d like to raise a contentious issue…

Engagement is not the same as entertainment, or even the same as enjoyment.

True engagement involves an insatiable curiosity. A driving need to know.
Presenting maths on a screen does not always add “engagement”, in fact most of the time it simply adds “entertainment”. And there is a very big difference between the two.

Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago as part of a newsletter that we are about to relaunch (sign up here). I feel that it’s still very relevant 5 and a half years on, so I am sharing it again. I hope you like it!

From “Insightful Classroom” issue 6, September 2012

Is engagement really as simple as using technology or are we being tricked by the YouTube phenomenon?

Engage Me! Engage Me!” was the main message of an education department video that I watched at a Professional Development session in SA recently. The video showed students of different ages using interactive technology and social media, interspersed with images of them holding up signs with “Engage Me” written on them. It was an interesting message, and one that has given me cause to think over the past couple of months.

It would appear that the official stance on how to engage students in mathematics is simply to use technology. This concerns me greatly. I believe that there has been a great deal of confusion between the term engagement and what is ultimately just entertainment.

It is the “cool textbook” phenomenon all over again, but this time using YouTube, Facebook and interactive software. I am sure you have seen it too – hoping to “engage” students textbook companies throughout the country have been putting images of dogs riding skateboards and wearing sunglasses on their pages. Let us get one thing straight, maths is not cool. Adding cartoon characters doesn’t help.

But it can be incredibly exciting and engaging for kids if done the right way.

Engagement is not about keeping kids busy, entertained or really even interested. Engagement is about turning on their brains – helping them to be so excited about solving a problem that the time just seems to slip away as they learn in a way that they have never before experienced. And that does not require fancy technology, it requires great teaching!

During that same trip to SA, I ran a Facilitator Training course with 30 teachers. I held an example lesson in a grade thee class where we worked on an open number line between 1 and 1000. We didn’t have any technology, just a line across the floor, some blocks and some paper. During this lesson two fairly amazing moments happened that I would like to share with you. Firstly, within 10 minutes of getting started one of the boys managed to split his shorts open. Now that was obviously not the amazing part… What was shocking was that none of the kids seemed to even notice. They were too busy working out where to put the numbers!

Then, 20 minutes later one of the girls vomited all over the carpet in front of everyone. A number of the teachers jumped up to help with the clean-up then scatter antiseptic powder over the area. Can you imagine what would have happened in a normal lesson at this point? Bedlam, right? Well…no. None of the kids reacted, so we carried on. Ten minutes later one of the boys who had been less than two metres from her asked me why there was kitty litter on the ground!

Perhaps that should be our definition of engagement. Nothing to do with technology, but having kids who are so excited by maths that they don’t notice what else happens in the classroom!

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