Engaged by, in and with learnng

As teachers we hope our lessons are engaging and that our students are engaged. We understand that positive learning experiences are more likely to occur when we are engaged cognitively and affectively by what we are doing and that when we are, new ideas and skills are more likely to stick. Engagement is an important consideration in learning and as such it is worth taking time to consider what it means to be engaged and perhaps how we bring the benefits of engagement to our teaching and our learning. 
In schools, engagement occurs in multiple flavours dependent upon perspective. From the teacher’s perspective we hope that our students are engaged by the lessons that we plan and deliver. This is an important goal and one that we cannot take for granted. In a time where we are competing against a vast array of powerful distractions, entertainments and even alternative sources of learning the task of engaging our students is increasingly difficult. Being aware of the factors which intrinsically motivate us is one step towards success. Understanding that we are more likely to engage with learning that is relevant to our daily lives and where we can see opportunities to develop mastery in domains that matter helps. As teachers we must have good answers to the student question which we so often face ‘why do I have to learn this?’. At one point it may have been enough to reply because you need to know it for the test, or you will need to know this later in life but if our goal is genuine engagement then we must do better. Our students are more likely to be engaged by our teaching when we understand the true value of what we are asking them to learn, are passionate about the teaching of it and show our students the relevance of it to their lives.  
One way to view engagement is to consider it as a consequence of interest. “If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life) In this way engagement is not only a consequence of what we find interesting but also of our conscious decision to show interest in a subject. For teachers this is an important notion for much of our role is bringing our students to ideas such that they may engage with them even where the student had not previously imagined them as interesting or engaging. This introduces the perspective of the student who is engaged in learning. Here we move beyond engagement as something that others provide for us and see that we can make the choice to be engaged in our learning. Students who value learning, who see it as a personal life-long goal are more likely to actively seek engagement. For this to occur students need teachers who value learning as a process, who celebrate the embrace of positive dispositions for learning and who encourage a growth mindset.
We can also consider learning as something that we need to engage with. This affirms that learning requires active participation and mindful effort towards the goal of learning. Learning is not something which can occur as a consequence of our passive involvement or exposure to a set of experiences but is one that requires our fullest attention. Learning is a process that we can control; a result of our active engagement with the process of learning and a consequence of deliberate application and reflection. As a process, it is one that we can learn to do and as such our engaged practice in the learning process is one that may be enhanced through our choice to actively engage with understanding how we learn. For students, having teachers who understand how we learn and devote time to teaching the processes of learning will have positive impacts. This can include the use of scaffolds for thinking, reflective practices that encourage students to become mindful of how they learn and opportunities to share learning practices with fellow learners. 
We can see implications here for the choices made about the type of learning experiences we offer students. Students are more likely to engage with concepts that matter to them and to this end autonomy or choice in the topic can assist. Topics which are relevant to the students’ daily lives will promote engagement and this can be often achieved by making meaningful connections between prescribed content and local or national issues of import to the students. Revealing the applicability of an historical issue to today’s politics or the usability of a mathematical concept to real world problem solving are simple examples of using relevance to enhance engagement. Engagement with learning can be enhanced through the use of problems and provocations which lead students into a problem solving or inquiry based learning environment. Problem solving and inquiry are active processes of and for learning and once a learner has bought into the need to find a solution learning can easily become self-sustaining as the challenge inherent to the task drives engagement. Sharing our processes of learning and inviting our students to collaborate with us on learning tasks shows that learning has real value, supports the development of a culture of learning and encourages a life-long engagement with learning. 
 By Nigel Coutts