Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

chronotope

I’ve long thought that one of the weakest proxy indicators of effective learning is engagement, and yet it’s a term persistently used by school leaders (and some researchers) as one of the most important measures of quality. In fact many of the things we’ve traditionally associated with effective teachers may not be indicative of students actually learning anything at all.

At the #ascl2015 conference last Friday, the always engaging Professor Rob Coe gave a talk entitled ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’ and reiterated this claim. Take the following slide – How many ‘outstanding’ lessons have been awarded so based on this checklist?

Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?

This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in…

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Slaying the dragons we can’t see

slaying dragons

We had our final parents’ evening of the year this last week. Year 10.

My year 10 class is small. Just 19 pupils, with FFTs ranging from B – D. We have the luxury of three ‘top’ sets this year, which means my set, set 4, isn’t overcrowded. For a number of reasons, this was and is important. For the kids themselves it mattered.

We started the academic year with a piece of coursework on Romeo and Juliet, an analysis of Mercutio’s character – comparing the play and Leo’s film. It was the perfect beginning to the year – subject content that was gripping and slightly controversial, paired with a tricky outcome. At the time, that comparative essay felt like a Herculean labour.

When I gave marks back to the class, I saw only two reactions. One was “Yes Miss!” the pride and jubilation displayed by male pupils. They deserved to be proud and I celebrated with them. After all, we had slayed the dragon.

rocky 1

The second reaction quieter and less certain. The female pupils in my class had been equally successful, but their success produced a type of shock that made me deeply unhappy. It was an undeserving, anxious surprise. One that meant they needed to check that there wasn’t a mistake.

girl

I have seen this reaction time and again this year. When studying modern drama, poetry and imaginative writing. The girls seem so uncertain of their own abilities.

My year 10 girls have a difficult road to navigate. They are not top set nerds. They are pretty and popular. Their social life matters. Yet they are hard workers, the grafters who write everything you say down because they might need it sometime. They check repeatedly the requirements of a piece of coursework or an exam. They read and annotate the mark scheme. They copy up notes to ensure they are neat and orderly.

Why then is their success a surprise?

convo

At parents’ evening I tried to tackle this issue. I ended up having roughly one of two conversations. Here’s how the first conversation went:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She’s always found English hard though.

Me: She doesn’t find English hard – some bits need more time and planning, but I don’t have any concerns about her. In fact, she got a B on her last piece of coursework.

Parent: A ‘B’? Wow. I hated English at school. She’s doing better than me.

Me: Do you ever ask her about what we are studying? Her ideas in lessons are really clever.

Parent: She said you did Shakespeare, I hated Shakespeare at school.

Me: Please do encourage her to tell you about her work. It is excellent. Perhaps you could have a look at her book sometime?

Parent: I wouldn’t understand it, would I?

shakespeare

The second conversation went a bit like this:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She gets really upset and worried about everything. She just wants to do well.

Me: She is doing well already. We are half way through year 10 and she is already writing at a B grade. She shouldn’t act surprised when that happens.

Parent: She doesn’t think she is clever.

Me: I wish she wouldn’t feel like it’s luck or a one-off thing. It is all down to her. She needs to develop more trust in herself. She does everything we expect of her so of course, she is going to be successful.

Seeing my class again after parents’ evening, I was more determined than ever to see if I was in some way helping or hindering these girls.

What did I notice?

  1. At the front of their exercise books, my class have a sheet of everything we cover in year 10. They tick off the subject content and reminders about mark schemes and exam percentages. To this I have added a checklist of skills in Literature and Language (for example – close analysis of language). At the end of each lesson, students tick off the skills we have used or worked on. Although in itself this is pretty meaningless, I can use it as a visual for the girls later – ‘Look how often we have studied this skill, you know what you’re doing. Trust yourself.’
  2. I found that I was instinctively more inclined to take answers first from the ‘more confident’ boys and the girls were happier adding to the boys’ answers. I am starting to warn the girls in advance about the question I would like them to answer. The boys then had to build on their ideas.
  3. The girls always wanted to check with me first, before doing something. I was their ‘built-in’ approver. So now the girls have to write their idea or sentence first and then tell me what is good about it or what they think still needs work.
  4. We have a whole school boy/girl seating plan policy. So every unconfident girl is sitting with a generally more confident boy. This means again the more confident boy is often shaping the conversation and discussion. Now I have moved the girls so that they are seated within range of other girls that they can turn and talk to. I need to monitor the success of this before I can say whether it’s effective or not.
  5. I circulate this small class often. My circuit has tended to go via some of the boys who have other needs first. Now I go to the girls first, check they are confident in the task and what is needed, before I move on.

It’s funny how often I was unconsciously feeding their lack of confidence.  I am so much more aware of this now.  I am absolutely determined that these girls will stop seeing their success as a fluke or an accident.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading