Why engagement matters for learning

I distinctly recall the first time I sat down to teach myself how to build a website. At the time the internet was young and the process of building a website was complicated and demanded a good understanding of how HTML worked. I was used to developing print documents in desktop publishing programs live Microsoft Word and Aldus Pagemaker. Moving from this style of mostly "What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) program to working in code with pages that were constructed from linked text files and images was a complete shift. I didn’t get it and quickly gave up. My goal was to learn some of the basics of web design because I could see that this was the next big thing, but at that time I had no compelling purpose for this skill set. 

A few years later my Curriculum Coordinator asked me to construct a website for our Middle School. I still had little to no idea of what I was doing, but I did now have a clear purpose and a deadline and people who were relying on me to deliver. The learning curve was just as steep. I found some books that helped, invested in some software that made the process easier and I dove in. The first version of the site was very basic but it was a start and I had something that could be tweaked and improved. Each update to the site improved its functionality and taught me new skills. The site evolved from a very plain HTML set of pages, to versions using Tables and then Frames. A year and a bit later the site transitioned to the newly emerging ‘Flash’ platform which allowed for new features and continued my learning journey. The site spent some time living on Apple’s iWeb platform before moving to Wordpress and then Squarespace. Today it is mostly replaced by Google Classroom.

This is not a story about the evolution of the world-wide-web. It is not about an evolutionary process of learning or a desire to engage in life-long learning. It is instead about the importance of purpose and engagement as factors in our learning.

Between my initial failed efforts to learn HTML and my later success, little to nothing had changed about the task or about my ability. The key factor was the clear purpose that was brought to the task. Wanting to learn had not been enough, I needed to need to learn. 

We have all experienced times when we are highly engaged by what we are doing and learning. When we are so involved in a task that time seems to move at an altered pace, challenges are exciting and we become distanced from distractions as we focus entirely on the task at hand. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as a state of “Flow”, for me it is a time when I become so engrossed in the task that I forget the cup of coffee I have just made until it has long gone cold. 

"Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz." (Csikszentmihalyi. 1997)

As teachers we want our students to regularly experience “Flow”. We want our classes to be full of moments where the learning is personally purposeful, engaging and meaningful for every learner. Beyond our sense that there is value in building connections between our learners and their learning is a growing body of research that should inform our practice. Neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research is particularly significant as it reveals the connections between structures within the brain and the circumstances which are required if we are to learn. There is an inseparable link between emotion and our capacity to learn and as Immordino-Yang shares 'It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.’ (Immordino-Yang 2016 p18) The clear implication of this for education as Immordino-Yang goes on to state is that if we hope to motivate students, produce deep understanding or provide for transfer of learning into real-world skills we must be aware of and “leverage the emotional aspects of learning”.

"Emotions are not add-ons that are distinct from cognitive skills. Instead emotions, such as interest, anxiety, frustration, excitement, or a sense of awe in beholding beauty, become a dimension of the skill itself.” (Immordino-Yang 2016 p21)

When we apply this thinking to education and the complex and politicised context in which it exists today such beliefs can be somewhat challenging even as there are also increased opportunities to bring highly engaging and purposeful learning into our classrooms. There can be a sense that between the standardised testing and the crowded and highly-prescriptive curriculum there can be little wriggle room and few options to truly personalise the learning experiences we present to our learners. On the other hand the movement towards learner-centred pedagogies, which in the extreme allows the child to design their own curriculum based purely around their interests, might not provide the learner with the breadth of experience and skills they will require. The debate around these two conflicting philosophies on Twitter as may be expected has quickly become polarised. Those on one side argue that we must provide learning opportunities that are engaging to the individual while the other side state there is much that must be learned even if it is not what we are interested in. Dichotomies such as this seem to never serve our needs. 

What is perhaps most interesting to observe in this debate is the energy that goes into arguing for certain pieces of learning while stating that engagement is not important. While the author might describe the content as ‘dry’ or lacking excitement they go onto argue for why it constitutes important learning in language that shows how it is at least personally engaging to them. When we look beyond the false dichotomy we create through this debate we find that there is much common ground and the opportunity to view our approach to engaging our learners in a slightly different way. When we truly understand the purposes of what we are teaching and share this understanding with our students we allow them to see the value in what we are teaching. If we set out to show our students the personal relevance of what they are learning in every situation, we allow for the development of the positive affect required for deep and lasting learning. When we assert that this must be learned because it is on the test and fail to show our students why the learning matters to them we close the door on learning. 

"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.” (Csikszentmihalyi. 1997 p128)

Our role as teachers is not to become Ice Cream vendors who embrace the mantra of ‘Find out what people want and give them more of it’. Instead our role is to ensure our students are engaged in meaningful, purposeful learning by helping them understand its personal relevance and why they might want to take the trouble of paying attention to it. 

By Nigel Coutts
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. (2016) Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company. 
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life”, Basic Books