Friday, April 24, 2015

An engaging experiment
One of my goals for my differentiated, mastery-based biology class is to increase student engagement. It doesn't look much like a traditional high school science classroom. And this unfamiliar picture often makes me question this strategy and whether it allows too much idle time. 

This week, it occurred to me that it would be very easy to get a rough measure  of engagement, or at least "on-task behavior" (I hate that phrase). I'd just walk around the room at regular intervals and make a check mark for each student who was actively engaged in working on his or her assignment, then divide that number by the total students. This should approximate the percentage of time they are "engaged."

My data so far, base on three separate measurements per class period:

Wednesday:  53%
Thursday: 57%
Friday (a double period): 62%

Today I started getting worried when I was getting ready to do my last count and it looked like I had about 30%, but then realized class was over in 5 minutes, and they'd been working for two hours.

50-60% may not seem to good, until you consider Microsoft's survey of 38,000 people that revealed that "people work an average of 45 hours a week," but "they consider about 17 of those hours to be unproductive." People estimate they're only productive for 63% of the time.

And I wonder what you'd find if you could measure "engagement" in the typical whole-class-instruction setting. You'd have a hard time measuring it, because looking at the teacher is hardly a reliable indicator of engagement. But my guess is you wouldn't get any more than 50%. And even if they're listening, according to Hattie and Yates, "there is no such things as passive learning,"so we have to ask whether they're learning at all in an environment like that.

The expectation of the quiet, docile, passive, teacher-directed classroom, assumes that having 80% of the students looking toward the front is better engagement than 50% working on projects.

I doubt it.

But neither am I satisfied with 50%. (I'm planning to do some experiments with the effect of various motivation efforts. I'll keep you posted.)

And neither am I satisfied with my measure of engagement. I need something that will tell me if they are really engaged, not just typing, looking at their books, or drawing on a poster. Though I think these are better indicators than looking toward the front, they're obviously not foolproof.

I need a better way to gauge it. Maybe by including a rating from my "Depth of Engagement" scale. Let me know if you have any tips.

In any case, I can't fault my students for an engagement level that approximates that of the American workforce, but I can certainly encourage them to aim higher. And I think we can get it higher by using sounder principles of motivation than are used in the typical American workplace (or school)--by using autonomy, mastery, and purpose instead of penalties and rewards.

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