I’ve heard many an administrator talk about engagement during evaluation meetings. Once or twice I’ve heard the term “100% engagement” thrown out there. I’ve even been asked if that was a goal of mine for the school year. In all honesty, no, 100% engagement is not a goal of mine.
Do I think 100% engagement is possible? Yes. Just not the way an administrator, or outside observer would see it. I can see it when I’m giving an exam, most of the time. I can see it when a fun demo, or lab is being completed. But I don’t think I’ve ever had all of the kids completely engaged for a whole class period. Even on minimum day schedule. And that is what I would call 100% engagement.
So, I don’t think it is a myth. It is just a reality that comes and goes, flashing in and out of existence, like an electron. You can’t pin it down and hold it in place. You can’t make it happen, because the engagement is outside of you. It is in the students.
For this school year (my first at a new school) I decided to try out the flipped class model, and mastery learning. I know, it’s like drinking from two fire hoses at the same time. But I truly think it is the best way, at least in theory, to have students learn: spend time in class working through their misconceptions and building new concepts, and let them peruse course content at their liesure. While this has actually been going quite well so far (just passed the first quarter mark), there are a few things bugging me.
- It is more difficult to keep a large percentage of the students “on-task” during class. Since they might be working on 2 or 3 completely different tasks around the room it is harder to spot a student not doing their work. And more than a couple of times I’ve had students who have completed all their assignments days early!
- It is getting way too easy for students to get behind. Specifically behind on classwork, not tests/quizzes.
- I am occupied almost all class, often moving from group to group in a loop, answer questions and checking off assignments.
The reason these things are bugging me is that they seem to be ruining what I liked about the flipped class. I wanted to go from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side,” but it feels more like I’ve become Admiral Check-Off (a self-coined term I come up with the other day). If I’m not responding to a question about Problem 2 on Assignment X, I’m checking off completion of Assignment Y for another student, or opening a quiz online for another student. While I am giving students the opportunity to self-pace and master content, I do not feel that class time is being used more effectively than in a traditional class.
How does this relate to the 100% engagement stuff? In a traditional class an observer might see all students taking notes, or working on a book assignment, or a worksheet, and the teacher meandering around prompting students to stay on task as 100% engagement. But the teacher, in my opinion, is barely engaged in teaching. Lecturing isn’t teaching, it’s talking. Prompting students isn’t teaching, it’s proctoring. But in my flipped class, where at any given time it might look like chaos, most students are doing some form of work (completing new work, catching up on video notes, taking a quiz), though not in a quiet, heads-down manner. And I, the teacher, am 100% engaged, answering questions or assessing understanding. And it is this very engagement on my part that can lead to problems 1) and 2) above. I made it a goal to talk to every student about their work at least once per week. But sometimes that talk is about the three or four assignments they haven’t completed. And if I spend more time prompting students to stay on task, I am spending less time clarifying problems and assessing work.
What is the solution then? I tweeted today that if engagement is a problem in class then a teacher should look at making the work more engaging, rather than getting angry at students, or simply piling on more work. I was really preaching to myself. I’ve been tempted to institute a punitive grading system to persuade students to stay on task… because threats always motivate teenagers, right? I am hesitant, not because I don’t see a need for a better grading/tracking system (for which I do see a need), but because I really see a need to make class more interesting. Yes, my conceptual physics text comes with awesome concept development worksheets, and they do help, but kids get real bored real quick of that stuff. And if my goal is to be a “guide on the side” I need to establish what it is that I want to guide them through. Is it concept development worksheets? Doubtful.
Somewhere, rattling around in the back of my head, are goals like “improve science literacy,” and “engage students in discussions on misconceptions,” which have gone ignored so far this year. Perhaps the solution to my problems with my current flipped class/mastery model are those very things I’ve put off doing?