Should Children Be Engaged In Their Learning?

I love Twitter. Whilst Facebook has increasingly become a forum for sharing photographs of children and memes about wine, Twitter remains the place to debate issues, find breaking news and, for teachers, pick up ideas. Whilst I’m not someone who enters into lengthy arguments online, I’m always interested in finding out what’s being discussed on edu-twitter. One debate that continues to rumble on is: should making lessons engaging be a priority for teachers?

Some on edu-twitter argue that children should find process of learning and the content interesting enough without teachers having to make the lessons engaging. And that by insisting teachers find ways to “hook” children into the lesson we undermine the authority of teachers and reduce their status to little more than that of a children’s entertainer with a laminator.

I think part of the problem with this particular debate is that we all have different interpretations of the word “engage.” When I think of that word I think of the definition: “to participate or become involved in.” For me, pupils being engaged in their learning just means that they are actively involved in the lesson: they’re thinking about the subject and actually learning rather than just sat waiting for lunch or wondering if enough time has passed since they last went to the toilet so they can ask to go again.

For others “engaging” has become a synonym for the word “fun.” I personally don’t have a problem with fun being a word used to describe my lessons, if my class have learnt what I wanted them to learn. I have never worked with, or even met, a teacher who would insist that children having fun should be the priority over children learning but I know plenty who successfully achieve both. I agree – lessons should not HAVE to be fun but fun also shouldn’t be intentionally avoided.

Another issue is that, all too often, the word “engaging” has meant “have several carefully prepared resources available in every lesson.” With workload still the number one cause of teacher’s leaving the profession, why would we add to it by asking them to make resources that don’t help children learn any better? Why spend your evening designing, cutting out and making 15 spinners so your class can generate numbers to create their own calculations when you can, in a quarter of the time, find and adapt a worksheet or *whispers it* a text book. I’ve only recently discovered textbooks. This is my seventh year of teaching and never before had I used a textbook. Do I use them every lesson? No. Are they useful for giving my class a list of fractions to simplify etc.? Very much so.

Another issue is it is very easy to engage children in fun activities without teaching them anything at all. In fact, I know from experience, it’s easier to make it look as though children are learning than it is to make children learn. And I’m sure in the past I’ve had wonderful feedback for lessons in which children learnt very little – but my god the resources were beautiful and the children were “busy.” However, I refuse to accept that engaging lessons and lessons in which children learn are mutually exclusive.

I think we’d all agree that the first thought when planning a lesson should be, “what do I need these children to learn?” and the second, “What is the best way for this class to learn that?” And admittedly there is sometimes a tendency go straight to what activity will be taking place in the lesson rather than what those children will learn e.g. “We’re doing Romans this term so we’re going to make Roman shields.” Now there are many National Curriculum objectives that could be covered by teaching children how to make a Roman shield although most of them are from the DT curriculum, not the History one. By the end of the that unit have they learnt to assess sources? Have they learnt to test the limits of what we can know about events that happened 2,000 years ago? In short, have they actually done any history?

When I first started teaching, I used to plan like that. I’d look at the topic and start by jotting down all the interesting things we could “do” rather than everything I wanted them to learn. “Oh we’re doing castles so they could design their own castles, they could write stories about castles, we could even have a medieval style banquet where they dress up, write the invitations etc…” And again there is plenty to be learnt by doing all of those things but I wasn’t thinking about that I was thinking about what those children would enjoy first and what they would learn second. I would spend ages trying to think of the objective that matched the task when the objective should have been my starting point.

Now? I’m currently planning our unit on “Women In History” (1890 -1960) and my starting point has been to jot down everything I want our pupils to learn: key dates, people and events. Now I’ve got that down I’m moving on to thinking about what the objectives are going to be and how I’ll deliver this content in the most engaging and interesting way possible. Some lessons I will be at the front passing on knowledge to the class and throwing out questions to challenge their thinking, other lessons will see them writing and delivering speeches, or grappling with Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Suffragette: My Own Story.”  There will be a debate week in which my class will have to use their knowledge of the suffragette and suffragist movements to build a case to argue for or against the motion: Is Violence Ever The Answer? 

I’m hoping my class will find this topic interesting and I want them to be engaged during the lessons but I’ll be measuring their engagement according to how enthusiastically they learn about the subject matter. Not by the number of laminated resources in the room.


2 thoughts on “Should Children Be Engaged In Their Learning?

  1. Enjoyed the read – thanks. Three thoughts.

    1. Psychologists (e.g. Dan Pink) suggest that sense of increasing mastery is one of the strongest sources of motivation (next t which “fun” quickly becomes boring). Don’t just motivate in order to teach, teach in order to motivate.

    2. Well done on textbooks – but why do we assume that teachers should be creating their own resources anyway. Why don’t we have a dynamic supply industry providing well designed resources to teachers, tied to proven pédagogies. Many of them will have a digital dimension. Why is every teacher expected to reinvent the wheel every evening?

    3. Why have we abandoned the attempt to describe our learning objectives, leaving this as well to individual teachers to think through for themselves as well (and how many don’t?). Isn’t it time we looked again at how criterion referencing can be made to work?

    Thanks again.


  2. I used to do the same thing, try to think of the most “fun” activities to teach an objective rather than the most effective. The truth is that not every activity has to be “fun”; there are plenty of ways to motivate students to do and even enjoy work that might not be considered fun. Once I learned that motivation can come from the students’ relationship with the teacher or their knowledge that the skills being taught were important and relevant to them, getting kids to do even menial or boring but necessary activities was no problem. (Well, there’s always that ONE kid, but I digress.)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Crispin Weston Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s