By Emerie Whitman-Allen
As I worked towards my Master’s Degree in Education, I was repeatedly observed teaching lessons with various groups of students – demo lessons with undergrads, mini-lessons with suburban ninth graders, and student-teaching units with urban juniors and seniors. Through this process, I was honing my abilities to design effective lessons that identified meaningful content standards and assessed tangible skills, all while learning how to control classroom dynamics and keep my students “on task” despite my youth and timidity as an authoritarian. There were resources to help me improve in these areas whenever instinct didn’t preemptively lead the way. One thing I never had to question, though, was my ability to engage students through my presence at the front of the room. Professors and mentors alike would comment, “Those kids are engaged with you and hanging on what you have to say – which is great, because we can’t teach that.” Another common accolade: “You’ve got ‘it,’ thank goodness, so you don’t have to worry there!” When my lesson assessment was misaligned to my objectives, or when I gave unclear instructions, a resource was seamlessly doled out with the reassurance that if I “read this and keep reflecting, all that stuff will fall into place with practice.”
On the contrary, a peer in my Master’s cohort was told, “Your lessons are solid and your assessments are right-on. But there’s something you need to work on in terms of engagement-factor. The kids just aren’t there with you – it’s a little forced… or awkward… or… something.” Deflated, she would ask, “What did I do? What did I say?”, at which our professors would stall with pained expression and reply, “It’s hard to describe. It’s just… off.” For her, there were no teacher-self-help books or recommended strategies to attempt. Despite her natural ability (beyond my own) to plan and implement a structurally solid lesson, there seemed to be a set of teacher-skills that were un-definable and nebulous that my peer could not grasp. What is the “it” that I supposedly already had, and where did it come from?
I think it’s important to note that none of my professors equated this “it” to my personality type – indeed, the peer I mentioned has a very similar, extroverted personality to my own. So how do we, as teachers and teacher-trainers, account for “it”?
This year, I asked my students (7th graders) at the end of the final semester what teacher skills they felt are my strongest, and which need the most improvement. In their written, anonymous surveys, they identified my weakest skill as the same I’ve struggled with since becoming a teacher four years ago. Without a word bank or example answers provided, they recognized that I struggle to discipline students who are breaking the rules. (Every year I work on this, and will continue to attempt new strategies to improve in this area.) My strongest areas, in their own words, are that I’m “really good at ‘connecting’ with students,” at “being convincing and open minded because [I put] a lot of enthusiasm into what [I say],” and, perhaps most succinctly, that I’m “a very engaging person.”
Just like those professors years ago, my students seem to be able to name this thing “engagement” or “connection” without needing to define or quantify it. While I’m glad that I’m good at it, I wonder about my colleagues who might be described similarly to my Master’s cohort peer – those who aren’t automatically lauded for their “engagement” and who are, thus, always on the hunt for it or resigned to their lack of it. Aspects of engagement have been described and dissected by education researchers into multiple dimensions and characteristics – some researchers cite cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement as separate characteristics, while other researchers in the recent past have attempted to break engagement down into more sub-categories so that an additional “academic” aspect may be explored. It is evident immediately upon examining contemporary research on the subject that much of the defining and redefining of these terms is unclear, highly inferential, and impossible to fully segregate (see Fredericks).
Continuing to redefine and measure engagement in these conflicting and confusing terms is both redundant and counter-productive. Just as finding new ways to test students through standardized national exams does not result in our students actually learning more, finding new ways to test and measure engagement does not result in students becoming more engaged. Quite frankly, we won’t make progress in this area if we continue to obsess over what student engagement is in this broad sense of the word while neglecting its origins and reasons for its specific occurrences. Instead of rejoicing that we’ve found schools where students are typically more engaged, or communities where school engagement is nurtured from home, it’s time we focus on what specific things happen in the classroom that prompt and sustain that engagement so that learning can happen. We need to separate overall school engagement from more specific classroom engagements so that we can be sure we are doing whatever it takes on a daily, even hourly basis to encourage attentive, reflective learning that “connects” our students to the instruction (as my students’ comments bring to light).
The most direct route to examining how engagement is affected in students is to look at the teachers themselves; strangely, however, the research on engagement has so far not focused much on teachers, preferring instead to think about instructional styles or learning models. Whereas students in a particular classroom can come from a variety of family backgrounds, cultural identities, and skill levels, the common denominator is always the teacher. Due to the nature of my school, which draws its population from a broad, regional demographic, the student body reflects a variety of socio-economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds; it is thus conceivable that my presence in the classroom is the only controlled variable, the only thing that unifies the experiences in the room – aside from the school’s culture itself. We already know that a student’s positive interaction with his teacher supports more learning, but we don’t seem to know what type of student-teacher relationships do this best (Ryan; Wentzel). We also don’t seem to know the degree to which students are engaged within the current engagement-measurement scales while interacting with those teachers, and what specific tasks or teaching activities are prompting these various levels of engagement (Fredericks). Pursuing answers to these questions would provide a more specifically focused framework that could practically impact teacher training and practice.
It’s true that some researchers have attempted to isolate particular teaching activities in order to analyse their engagement, but teacher behavior isn’t usually discussed in connection to these activities’ success (Hunzicker). This makes the lesson itself, as opposed to its implementation and delivery, the focus of study, leaving the teacher’s specific actions and interactions (along with people like my Master’s peer) by the wayside. This in turn reinforces a problematic assumption, as I see it, that engaging instruction comes solely from instructional design as opposed to instructional delivery. In other words: the current trends in the research suppose that a prescribed classroom activity has an inherent engagement value that is separate from the lesson’s implementation (which might take into account the teacher’s style and psychological impact of her particular delivery choices). I don’t think most practicing teachers would agree that their delivery has no impact at all on student engagement, no matter how “solid” the lesson plan reads on paper. It’s as if the research has resisted naming any of the teacher’s behaviors as “engaging” and is instead focused only on describing instructional designs that are “engaging” – perhaps in an effort to seem egalitarian. Yet, as my peer’s experience demonstrated, the end result of such a focus is actually both exclusive (you don’t have “it”), and hopelessly depressing.
Let me be clear: I do not disagree with the many observations we’ve come to accept as fact regarding instructional design practices. Literature has stated conclusively and repeatedly that student-centered learning, for example, is a more ideal classroom arrangement than teacher-centered learning activities (Valentine). However, because student-centered learning activities are not always possible and not always the best method for delivering particular types of instruction, teachers should be given more tools and strategies to succeed in engaging students through teacher-centered activities as well. Even a fully student-centered activity often requires a teacher’s introduction or facilitation of a wrap-up discussion of sorts. If our students are capable of making meaningful, strong connections to their learning during student-centered activities, it seems such a waste to dismiss any possibility of harnessing that engagement at other times as well. However, the harnesser, in this case, is the teacher – which means we will have to accept that there is something (“it,” perhaps) that a teacher must practice in order to perform effectively in that role.
We’ll never know what “it” is if we are not willing to break down a teacher’s actions, voice, manner, “connectivity,” perhaps their very soulfulness, in the classroom. We will need to focus on the teacher in ways that may be uncomfortable at first – it might feel very teacher-centered of us to analyze these behaviors with such a close lens. However, teacher-training programs already acknowledge that a skilled teacher is, among other things, a controlled force that is able to tap into students’ engagement-potential effectively. Our willingness to break these “engaging” features down (whatever they are) – comparing and contrasting them with the features of other “less-engaging” teachers – may result in some meaningful discoveries that impact how we train teachers in the future.
The question must be asked, then: where do we begin describing instructional delivery without talking about instructional design, and how do we avoid falling into a trap of just asking students whether or not they “like” their teachers, which could very easily result in us equating “engaging teachers” with particular personality types (Fredericks)? There must be a middle ground that can illustrate teaching in a way that is not only specific and empirically sound, but also grounded in literature that is qualitative and descriptive. Could those descriptors translate into skills that are actually trainable – or were my professors correct in asserting that “it” can’t be taught?
I have a suggestion of how to do this – because the 7th grader I quoted above did not say that I am good at engaging her, she said that I’m “an engaging person.” Is this sort of like saying that I’m an engaged person? Might we then shift the academic conversation from student engagement to teacher engagement, and attempt to describe those “connectivity” pieces in the same ways we have attempted to describe our students in the research thus far? I’m probably not alone in thinking that teachers should be cognitively and emotionally engaged in their practice, which should reveal visible behavioral engagement. Those behaviors, I suspect, would reflect passion, trust, empathy, and vulnerability, among other things perhaps, all of which are emotional qualities already valued in teachers according to the research (Skinner). To further illustrate and define those nebulous skills that a teacher employs, we could even build upon these frameworks with mechanisms grounded in neurology, psychology, and sociology. All of these pieces contribute to a teacher’s affectation, voice, and connectivity with her students – which have not been synthesized into a solidly defined, measured indicator on any teacher-rubric I’ve seen.
We might also productively look at performance studies to help explain what passionate/empathetic/vulnerable/social –“soulful”– qualities we see in teachers who are connected to their students. I’ve thought a lot about how the performance of an “excellent actor” can stir emotional investment and sincere feelings of connection in an audience, just as we’d like to see amongst our students during a lesson. When students feel connected to what they’re learning, and even emotionally touched or accessed by the instruction (whether in a lecture or student-centered activity), they are going to hear it at a deeper level and learn more from it. Good actors know how to do this because they are trained to expose their own souls on stage on cue (this seems to be that same soulfulness coming up again that I mentioned earlier). Audience members who attend a performance are often willing to submit to that experience – willing to “go there” and suspend their disbeliefs, inciting an emotional commitment to what’s happening.
Of course, positioning students as audience members may result in us characterizing them as the passive receivers of knowledge – just as the negative image of teacher-centered learning often conjures. But I don’t think this is actually an accurate representation of a student “audience”. More than spectators, engaged students might best be likened to Augusto Boal’s spect-actors.
Who is more engaged than the audience with what the actor is saying or doing during a performance? The other actors sharing the stage – who must, by their very job description, be present, listening, and connecting soul-to-soul with their colleague in that moment of storytelling. Just as researchers have agreed that students are most “engaged” when active in their learning, perhaps we should visualize the student as being on stage with the teacher, as a co-performer. Actors who are deemed “excellent” are usually described in terms of their presence on stage – their perceived ability to listen and respond to their fellow actors in a way that reveals a feeling of true connection. A good actor isn’t just… there, reciting lines into a vacuum. Soulful connection requires emotional investment in what’s going on, active processing of what’s said and done, and a visible reflection of hearing, seeing, thinking, and feeling.
Few of us interact in real, day-to-day life with the same conscious, outwardly shining presence and interactive response that we see on stage between a group of “excellent actors” who are exposing their souls in an effort to seek and perform their true connection in the moment. But imagine if we did!
Imagine if we were able to measure and train that visible soulfulness, so that we, as teachers, were able to get a little closer to that experience with our students during a lesson. A teacher-centered lesson will never replace one that is student-centered, but a teacher-centered lesson that can push students “on stage” in the way I’ve described above, through soulful teaching, may be the next-best thing. Imagine how instruction would be different if a teacher-centered activity could more closely elicit a student-centered experience in response. This imagining may, if explored critically, help us to close the engagement gap between teacher-centered and student-centered learning activities, and open up new possibilities for teacher-centered instruction in the future.
If we, as teachers, know how to engage our students as co-performers, as if they are on stage with us, perhaps we will be able to both alleviate our concerns about teacher-centered activities and also characterize better what the teacher is doing to effectively play the part and soulfully engage with students during instruction. I want all of my students to feel involved in learning even when they are not the physical center of each activity, but that means that I must know how to pull them up on stage, so to speak, in my lessons – and it also means that they must be primed for this experience. At the beginning of the year, I tell my students that they are responsible for their learning because all I can do is teach them – that is, they are the ones who have to do the learning. But I’m sure there is more I can do to promote this idea that we are all actors building the scene together. After all, in a classroom, shouldn’t the teacher be learning from her students, too?
If we can explicitly structure that expectation in our classrooms so that students are given the trust to help guide the scene’s creation, and teachers are given the training to support that process, whether the activity is structurally teacher-centered or student-centered, perhaps we will connect more and better, soul-to-soul, on the classroom stage and promote deeper, more engaged learning for teachers and students alike.
Emerie Whitman-Allen is a teacher of communication, meta-cognition, and media at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio. She has presented at conferences and led workshops with teachers and administrators about project-based learning, as well as the Six Thinking Hats critique method and STEM Foundations curriculum, both of which she has developed during her career at the STEM School. Before working there, she taught pre-primary and elementary art education at Discovery Montessori in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and high school English conversation in Seoul, South Korea. She earned a BA in Communication (Radio, Television & Film) and Master of Science in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University. Her current research interests focus on instructional delivery as it relates to theatrical performance, and the elusive cultivation of positive classroom culture.
(Visit Emerie online here.)