I’ve spent a lot of time walking around Manhattan and exploring the various villages, boroughs and communities to gain a real sense of New York City. While many of the tourist sites were fascinating, it’s some of lesser known places that I’ve found more interesting than others. Take for example the Museum of Mathematics located, just off 5th Avenue in midtown, and not widely known and certainly not mentioned in any major tourist brochure. This museum was full of interactive problem solving maths activities with descriptions and links to a wide field of learning. Visitors of all ages were drawn to the activities because they were hands on tasks and the tasks presented some form of challenge.
During my exploration, I’ve noticed daily groups of American children wearing different coloured bright T-shirts engaging in field trips to libraries, museums, playgrounds, shorelines. I have since learnt that these children are taking part in either daily or weekly education camp.
Before making any change at Merrylands East Public School, a fundamental question needed to be asked and that related to what is student engagement and what does it look like? it seems that the children that I’ve seen throughout New York City during my stay have been truly engaged in the various experiences by their inquisitive minds in asking questions, their conversations with each other about a shared interests and taking part in hands on activities. Yet, they were on school vacation.
I would start off by suggesting that students are already engaged in the world that they live in through their daily social discourse. These interactions are often quite pragmatic and related to needs and wants. Even the students that facebook in class is engaging because of the need to be connected to someone for information sharing, no matter how we as educators may perceive as important or trivial.
Therefore, learners are engaged already but sometimes not necessary in the classroom programs that we offer. Students could be planning their after school or weekend activities, discussing the previous evening’s television shows, daydreaming in class or using social media to connect.
Schools and classrooms are not the sole repository of knowledge and skill anymore. Information once the prize possession of teachers is now in the shared domain on the web with immediate access at anytime and anywhere with a device. Students can learn in any curriculum area globally on line with the rise in massive open online courses (MOOCs), some of which are cost free. Students are not limited to their assigned teacher but to a global connections of teachers, experts and lay people.
Our concept of engagement is often couched in terms of students taking part in our lessons, answering questions and completing the tasks that we set. We’re predetermined in our values and beliefs, and assumptions, that students must be engaged in our lessons otherwise they won’t learn. The C2st, students doesn’t think or work within these paradigms anymore. They learn in any modality and not restricted to the four walls in a classroom and the adult in their presence. This notion is something that educators need to understand before engaging students in our daily program.
So, does that mean giving them a device is the answer to student engagement? There is a lot of global discussion at the moment that technology engages students. It’s as though technology will simply solve the issue of student engagement. Probably one of the biggest errors that I made at Merrylands East (now looking back in hindsight) is making an assumption that installing fixed interactive whiteboards in every classroom would enhance teaching and learning. While fabulous at the time and led to teachers learning new technology skills and devising resources on line, there was the issue that the interactive whiteboards would become the dominant feature in classroom lessons as though it became more like entertainment rather than a learning tool.
The second common myth is that having a device will increase student engagement. True! It will increase engagement but maybe not what we expect if we don’t have a purpose for their use. Students are so savvy at the moment that they can create, design and connect to each other regardless of whether we are providing instructions on their use or not. Just a walk through the Museum of Mathematics was a reminder of how the youngest child could use devices to interact with some of the activities. They didn’t have a crash course in the different use of devices but simply worked it out by engaging in the tasks.
My recent classroom observations suggest that student engagement is not related to technology at all but to students’ interests and passion for what they are learning, and the interpersonal skills of the teachers who are scaffolding learning. However, the technology does makes the learning easier for students due to the immediacy of information and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in different processes and products. It is here that teachers and school leaders need to increase our expertise in how technology can be used to engage learners. In other words, engaging the disengage all comes back down to pedagogy and meeting students’ needs.