Authentic Engagement: A Byproduct of Deeper Learning, Student Agency, Authentic Opportunities, and Technology Integration
Authentic. Perhaps there are no two greater buzz phrases in K-12 education than authentic learning and authentic engagement. First and foremost, these two terms must be looked at in isolation as they are different. For this post, let us take a closer look at authentic engagement. Through the lens of a reflective teacher, it is more than frustrating to be excited to roll out a lesson than to have it fall flat with your students. As a teacher, you can instinctively feel it as is happening, and we hope we can pivot mid-lesson. It is even more frustrating for an instructional coach at a junior high to allow that same lesson fall flat 3 more times throughout the day and perhaps the next semester or the next year.
Such a circumstance requires reflection on what needs to happen for that lesson to be successful. The following 4 questions can provide teachers with a current picture of reality, and a strategic plan on how to address the lesson’s shortcomings (McLeod & Graber, 2019):
- What can be done to deepen the learning opportunity for our students?
- What can be done to make the learning more authentic and more relevant to our students?
- How might I put more ownership in the hands of the student?
- How can I infuse technology in the previous three domains to redefine the learning experiences for our students?
The phrase authentic engagement is something that every teacher strives for within their classroom, yet many times when a lesson fails to engage our students, we don’t know why. The truth is authentic engagement is a byproduct of these four shifts in instruction. It is a crucial growth opportunity for teachers and coaches during this time of planning or reflection. Authentic engagement is a great goal for a classroom teacher to have; however, the problem is that if most of us in education were asked to define authentic engagement we might all have different answers. This is undoubtedly an important question to address as the majority of my work as an instruction coach falls within this domain. A teacher’s prioritization of authentic student engagement can lead to deeper learning opportunities for their students. So much so that there are even entire programs that have been developed to monitor engagement and give a score to schools and teachers on student engagement programs.
Several different programs out there use teachers within a building to get trained on how to score engagement in order to assign a value to student investment into the activity or instruction. Typically the scorer would place a score based on bloom's taxonomy. While programs such as this emphasize that these values represent categories of engagement and not a hierarchy of classroom engagement, are they categorizing engagement or on task behavior? As many who have experience in the classroom this is a huge difference. Such drive-by engagement programs use multiple data points to help assess the engagement score of a building. It’s like taking multiple snapshots in time and adding them together to try to get a full picture of what is going on. In a typical school year at United Junior High School, a teacher will see a single class of students for 7,380 minutes. If you add the other 6 periods throughout the day, that is a total of 51,660 minutes of instructional time. Even over the course of 120 quick observations, it is still highly unlikely that a complete picture of that student engagement will be constructed, nor would I argue that these teachers are having the deep, non-evaluative, non-judgmental, student focused conversations taking place in real-time like I do with my teachers. The conversations give them instant feedback and pivot points to use as early as that class period.
One of the biggest missing aspects of such a program is a student assessment of their own active engagement in the instruction. Again, on-task behavior and engagement are two different assessments. While student enjoyment of an activity in not necessarily an indicator of learning, knowing how invested students are in a lesson is valuable information to have as a teacher. Engagement in a classroom could be very difficult to see in just an observation mostly due to the fact that on task behavior can be misconstrued for engagement when perhaps the students are just being compliant. If such engagement is happening cognitively and cannot be witnessed, it's tough to measure without student input. I would like to see more student feedback on their own engagement which in the end, adds to student agency in what and how they learn. I suggest a classroom poll during class to act as a sort of engage-o-meter.
I am in no means dismissing or diminishing the work done by the creators of other models. I do value such a program’s end goal in terms of the conversations that can be started by teachers. Teachers can begin to openly discuss with each other how they could move their own engagement scores in their classrooms. Such practices can undoubtedly harvest growth within our teachers. However, in comparison to the depth of conversations that I can have with a teacher through my instructional coaching cycles such reflection seems to be surface level.
Through instructional coaching cycles, I can provide a teacher with a current picture of reality from within their classroom. At this point, I can have teachers assign a value to their own student engagement. The coach can offer constructive feedback that is immediate and meaningful; and in my case, we can begin to look at pivot points in order to make the lesson more authentically engaging for our students. How can we move the lesson to deeper learning, allow for student agency, provide real-world authentic opportunities for our students, and infuse technology to tackle difficult questions? These shifts will foster authentic engagement. So when you are in a classroom, what do you see? Are students authentically engaged or do they perhaps fall into another category? Are they simply being compliant? In other words, does the student’s current state of mind simply say “my butt is in the chair, what more do you want from me?” Are they in a state of retreatism in which they are not engaged are finding any other alternative than to be so engaged? Or perhaps are they in a state of rebellion in which not engaging in an activity is a small victory for that student in his or her mind for that day. Perhaps the student who would continually challenge the teacher in a power struggle throughout the year if authentically engaged would remove themselves from this rebellion.
Infographic: Dr. Roland Rios
Through the process of reflection and lesson redesign, my preferred solution is to use the 4 shifts protocol found in the book Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning and is the most used portion of my instructional playbook (McLeod & Graber, 2019). As this is only my second year in this position and this building, my focus in year one to have reflective conversations with my teachers. The 4 shifts were my key tool in doing so. However, as I move into year two, I would like to begin to use the tool to change the culture of reflection within my building rather than simply the conversations I have with teachers. For any educator wanting to foster change within their institution, I would highly recommend “Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning.” By looking at the components to obtain deeper learning, authentic learning, student agency, and infusion of technology, one can reflect on instructional design with a coach and begin to develop lessons to get teachers where they want to be. It might be that they first start with one of those 4 domains and move through them as they have more comfort in what they are doing. Moreover, to have the support and confidentiality of an instructional coach in reaching such a goal in an uncompromising necessity. Without a coach, a teacher trying to implement these changes in their classroom might find themselves feeling lost in the dark.
McLeod, S., & Graber, J. (2019). Harnessing technology for deeper learning. Solution Tree Press.