Busy vs. Engaged

After a recent observation, my supervisor commented that the students did not seem engaged in the activity. I was surprised because the students were busy working. How can you tell if students are really “engaged”? —P., Oklahoma

Ask your supervisor what he or she saw (or did not see). What indicators would have determined “engagement” in your class? How does this differ from your observation of being busy?

In the meantime, here’s some food for thought. I asked at a workshop: Can you be visibly busy but not intellectually engaged in a task? The attendees generally responded yes, with examples of chores such as housecleaning.

The follow-up question required more thought: Can you be intellectually engaged without being visibly busy? We had a great discussion on creativity, reflecting, and thinking about a topic but appearing to others as daydreaming or not paying attention (i.e., not busy).

I found it was easy to keep students visibly busy with low-level tasks (filling in a worksheet, following directions in a cookbook lab activity). They usually complied with my instructions.

But students had a motivation beyond compliance during other activities—especially those that involved student choices, challenges, creativity, or other higher level thinking. I noticed several indicators of this in my middle school classes, including:

  • Electricity and excitement in the classroom (unquantifiable, but you’ll know it when it happens);
  • Conversations such as “What if we try this”, “I wonder…”;
  • “Bums” in the air— during cooperative activities, students pushed the desks together and some were kneeling on the chairs or bending over the tables to get their heads closer to their partners
  • Fewer requests for the restrooms or water fountains

And best of all – “Is class over already? Can we finish this tomorrow?”


Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xevivarela/4610711363/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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