Engaged, Disengaged and Overengaged - The consequences of engagement on learning

If you consider the day to day life of many of our students today, you see that they have very little time that is free from some form of programmed activity. Indeed, it is increasingly the norm for families to fill their children’s time with the maximum number of learning, sporting and co-curricular activities. Schools naturally are happy to facilitate this and many see the breadth of programmes that they offer as a measure of success. But is there a consequence to all this activity and constant state of engagement?

During school hours, we hope that our students are actively engaged in the process of learning. We understand that learning requires engagement and that all learning is a consequence of thinking. Unlike a cake baking in an oven, where it is sufficient for the cake to sit passively on its tray while the process happens to it, learning demands the active participation of the learner. Observe some students as they undertake internet based research and you see where this process goes wrong. The student flicks aimlessly from one site to another, pauses here and there and then quickly moves on. It is as though they imagine that by being near the information they will somehow come to understand the material. A similar pattern is evident in some classrooms as the teacher delivers content to their students with little awareness of whether the students are joining them on a learning journey or imagining what they might be having for lunch. And before we blame the students for their lack of engagement, how many times have we bodily sat through meetings and professional development sessions while our minds are busy elsewhere?

The significance of engagement in the learning process should be one area around which there is little debate. What is perhaps debatable is how engagement should be achieved. There is a line of thinking that seems to imply all learning should be connected to the learner’s personal passions. That all our lessons should be personalised and individually relevant. We see as a consequence of this line of thinking some educators bringing theatrical elements to their lessons in an attempt to engage the minds of every learner or others who attempt to present only content that is matched to the personal interests of their learners. On the opposing side of the fence are those who claim that there is content that just must be mastered and that it is the responsibility of the learner to engage with it or miss out. 

This debate around engagement is, like so many topics in education, made more complex than it need be by the way that we construct false dichotomies. Engagement is indeed important and there is content that we need to learn which might not always make it on to our personal ‘Top Ten’ list of things to learn. What the talented and passionate teacher will do is reveal to the learner how and where the content or skill is relevant to the individual’s learning journey and how it fits with their interests. What will never build real engagement are claims that the content is relevant because it is on the test or will be needed at some distant point in a future that seems increasingly unlikely to turn out like the teacher imagines.  Often when we are engaging in new learning we fail to immediately see its relevance and in these times, it is the role of the teacher to help us make this connection. When we have teachers who truly understand the material in question and share with us their passion for it we are much more likely to make the effort to uncover its personal relevance. 

Where this very much falls apart is when we confuse engagement with entertainment. We want our learners to be active participants in the learning process, for their minds and bodies to be engaged in the process of learning. This requires activity on the part of the learner and any measure of success must look at the learner’s side of the equation. A lesson is only engaging if it engages the learner in learning, regardless of how entertaining it might be. 

All of this engagement however has a significant down side that we often ignore. Our students should be actively engaged during their time in our classrooms. After all the expectation is that this is a time when they are learning. The danger is when we extend the boundaries of their learning day far beyond the time they spend inside our classrooms. Between time at school, time in activities outside of school, time spent on home learning, time engaged in flipped learning, time spent negotiating complex social lives, time interacting with screens, time reading books and consuming other media there is little time left for the average young person’s mind to be quiet and disengaged from external stimuli. Our drive to keep young people engaged is so great that we have removed the downtime that their minds need to process all of this learning that they are engaged in. 

The neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s research shows the importance of allowing time for the brain to be ‘disengaged’ from the outside world. From imaging of the brain using FMRI, Immordino-Yang has shown that the neural networks utilised while attending to our environment, turn off those which we use while looking inwards for introspection and reflection. The direct consequence of this is that if we are forever actively engaged our minds do not have adequate time to make sense of what we have learned and to move this learning into our long-term memories. Immordino-Yang reflects on her research as follows:

"These findings also suggest the possibility that inadequate opportunity for children to play and adolescents to quietly reflect and to daydream may have negative consequences—both for social-emotional well-being and for their ability to attend well to tasks."

"The overarching premise of the article is that although daydreaming and other lapses in outward attention lead to poor performance on concentration-requiring tasks in the moment, skills for reflecting during lapses in outward attention, and time for safely indulging mind wandering, may be critical for healthy development and learning in the longer term."

Filling our days with engaging activities seems like an admirable goal and to a degree has merit. There are many ways in which young people and adults can spend their time which are neither meaningful nor are offering their minds the quiet time they need. Being aware that our minds require time to wander, daydream and disengage from the external world should encourage us to seek a better balance between active engagement and productive disengagement. 
 By Nigel Coutts
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen. 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.