Saturday, January 10, 2015

Engagement in learning - or just in schooling?

One main problem n contemporary education is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.
Schooling engagement is more typical in educational setting with prescripted instructional design, where students' learning outcomes are defined as an observable change in their behaviour.  Students may perceive these learning objectives as "an external imposition"[2], and use a strategic learning approach to complete the task.  In learning experiences like this students' main concern is to jump the hoop, and memorize (not understand) the content, because they know there will be questions asked about the content.  (I would like to remind that the prescriptive ID models were born in army and corporate training settings, NOT in a pedagogically or andragogically driven systems, but where top-down management implements learning objectives in order to produce desired learning products that benefit the system and/or corporation.)
In qualitatively different learning environment that supports personally meaningful learning learning engagement is more predominant, and the learning outcomes are significantly better. When students attempt to understand the learning content and make sense of it, this deep learning approach engages students in their own learning process, and often results in change in students' thinking. This is how life-long learners are born - students being allowed to engage in their learning, and pursue their interests, within the boundaries of the topic to be learned. 
It is extremely important to remember that "every student is capable of both deep and surface approaches, from early childhood onwards" [2].  The easiest way I have found to support engagement in deep learning is to provide students with choices in their assignments and assessments.  It is important to actively choose HOW you teach! 

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.
2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer (quotes from pages 42 and 45).