Engagement is difficult in the classroom. In fact, I remember many times feeling like I was jumping through hoops of fire in order to keep my students engaged, until one day I realized that it wasn’t me that was the problem. I realized there wasn’t really one “teacher personality;” instead, there were many types, and a no type made a teacher more or less effective, necessarily. Since this wasn’t part of the problem, I decided it wasn’t really part of the solution either.
While we want students to enjoy learning, this isn’t the only purpose of engagement. Engaging students allows them to internalize content so that it sticks. Having said that, generally speaking, engagement and enjoyment strongly correlate, meaning if your students enjoy what they’re doing, then they’ll be engaged. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that engagement and enjoyment don’t imply doing parlor tricks to hold their attention. If this was the case, you’d constantly be coming up with new parlor tricks to keep them engage, as they would quickly grow weary of the old ones.
Instead, I want to argue that engagement lies in action, specifically action through interaction with media.
Engagement in a child is readily observed when they are in action. Action is the concrete display of the abstract thinking that is occurring in a child’s head. When we sit and lecture to children, learning is more unlikely and rarely visible, because we are not requiring them to act. While it all begins with the stimulus, the steps after that are even more critical than the stimulus itself.
(1) Stimulus – An engaging learning experience starts with a stimulus. Broaden your mind to expand that term “stimulus” to anything, not simply a worksheet. It could be a video, a piece of artwork, a number cube, a street corner… anything! One of the reasons that children need a chance to explore and wonder is so that they’re exposed to as many experiences as possible. These experiences could possibly become significant signal experiences for learning and open the floodgates to something extraordinary.
(2) Interpretation – After the child observes the stimulus, they are likely to interpret it. The depth and degree of the interpretation varies, of course, which is heavily dependent on the child’s interests and how the stimulus is presented. Just yesterday, I watched a toddler as he saw a dog from a 20 feet away. His eyes lit up, a clear sign that he interpreted his stimulus (the dog) in a positive way. This next step was also clear through mere observation.
(3) Decision – If a child decides to do something with their interpretation, then the chance of learning occurring is much greater. Children are always interpreting, even when they are simply identifying something they’ve seen before. However, learning doesn’t always occur because the child decides to take no further action; it’s either a familiar stimulus or one with which they’d rather not interact. For the toddler, he decided to build upon his interpretation of this dog by moving closer to it. He had made the decision to go play with it.
(4) Action – After the child makes a decision, he or she will act on that decision. He or she will speak, read more, write, move, and from there interact (our next step) with the medium, making their learning and thinking visible with other learners in the classroom. Their learning, and in turn, their engagement will be visible to the teacher, as well. The child in the park acted on his decision by going to play with the dog, and when he got to the dog, he ran his cute little fingers through the dogs tight curls of hair.
(5) Interaction – Now, I’m still trying to figure out if you can have action without interaction, but while I’m pondering that, we’ll leave these two discrete categories. Learning needs a medium, which is the whole idea behind “mediated” action (Wertsch, 1991). It cannot happen in a vacuum, and in order for a child to learn anything, he or she needs to be interacting with something. Vygotsky states in his research that the “social dimension of consciousness” is first, implying that the individual must interact with the environment, the culture, and/or other learners within that setting before any synthesis can occur (Vygotsky, 1979; Wertsch, 1991).
Sidenote: At first sight, this does not account for intrapersonal communication, in which a student might have an internal dialogue. I would still argue, though, that this is interaction; it’s simply an interaction of opposing ideas in a child’s mind. An exchange of ideas occurring, an exchange of ideas that had to come from an original stimulus or signal experience.
(6) Modification – This process ends with a modification of the original stimulus through the child’s interaction with it. Modification, though, doesn’t necessarily have to mean the object’s shape or state has changed. This most certainly can happen; however, in many cases, it won’t. The child in the park didn’t change the shape or state of the dog. In fact, if he had, he might have elicited quite a different response from the dog. Instead, he took the stimulus and assimilated it into his prior thoughts about animals. Because this “thought” was now in the context of everything else he knows and has experienced, the idea of “dog” was changed only through its fusion with his other experiences and knowledge. The child just underwent the act of synthesis–of assimilating new thoughts into his mind.
Essentially, by the end of this process, the child has created a new stimulus, as the original thought or interpretation of the medium has been modified. This new stimulus acts as the catalyst for a new learning experience, one where they go through all of the steps in the Framework for Mediated Action again. As they continue this cyclical process, each of the cycles build upon one another, much like the coils of a spring, until they’ve built a sturdy, yet flexible, cylindrical structure, representative of their learning.
Next time you’re concerned that your students aren’t “engaged,” consider the Framework for Mediated Action, and help them interact more with the environment around them. You’ll be surprised at how much it will change their experience… and yours.