Friday / February 23

Focusing Students’ Energy in Engaging Tasks

Is student engagement a behavior or a cognitive process? 

Every industry has its jargon and education is no exception. We throw around words like rigor and relevance, high order thinking, research-based strategies¸ and response to intervention. For a number of reasons, my personal favorite is engagement. It is a word so frequently used in our profession that we may have watered down the definition until it means everything and nothing at the same time. If that’s the case, why fight it? Let’s consider multiple definitions of engagement in the classroom and place them on a continuum of energy—the energy that students are willing to commit to a learning activity or task. This would allow us to recognize that engagement may be physical, social, and/or cognitive depending on the design of the task.

In 2005, Dr. Jim Garver and I began an exciting research journey to answer the question “What truly engages learners?” We interviewed learners—kindergarten to twelfth grade—in over 17,000 classrooms in North America to categorize and classify different types of engagement. We soon recognized the following continuum that recognizes the relationship between the energy and cognition a learner dedicates to a task.

An example from the kindergarten carpet

To clarify the continuum, consider a series of learning tasks that were part of a “fish-bowl” demonstration lesson I recently taught in South Carolina elementary. The professional development goal for the teachers in attendance was to analyze the relationship between learning tasks and student engagement. The reading objective for the five-year-old learners was to “determine meaning in literary text.” (Sidebar: In their second month of school, the majority of the students were not yet readers nor writers.)

As I walked into the classroom, the first phase of engagement began—I had their attention. The students had been together in class for almost four weeks, but never had they seen such a large, male visitor to room 104. The visible stimulus required attention.

As humans, we are aware of the world around us as a response to the world’s interaction with us. For example, if we are sitting at a coffee shop at a mall and we notice someone in a clown outfit, we may certainly pay attention as he comes down the escalator and continues into the party store. We pay significantly more attention and become more cognitively engaged if he makes a bee-line to our table. It is now about us!

In our kindergarten story, I was the clown and I was seated as a visitor on their carpet. Mrs. Jones introduced the visitor as “Mr. Antonetti, our guest reader today.” She continued, “He is going to read to us and be our guest teacher today.”

The students graciously allowed my presence and my purpose. Some were even energized by a stranger in their teacher’s chair. As I began the read-aloud, the students readily accepted meaning from our version of The Three Little Pigs. We stopped as we read to consider what was happening in the book.  “What is the first little pig doing?” “What did he use to build his house?”

To make the reading task more engaging, I asked the students to stand up and act out parts of the story—building a house of straw, the first pig celebrating by dancing a jig, the wolf bellowing his warning, and huffing and puffing. With the task now more interactive and physical, students found value in the work and they gave more energy to the learning. It is, after all, more fun to be a pig or a wolf than to simply listen to a story about them. Acting out the scenes also began to move the cognition; rather than simply recognizing information in the text, the students had to understand the text at a deeper level to deliver an accurate and exciting performance.

The cycle repeated: I read and the students listened (accepting meaning). They engaged at a higher energy level as we formed trios and performed the dialogue between the first two pigs and the wolf. The students found value in the novelty of the charade and the collaboration with friends.

As we read about the three pigs now safe in the house of brick, a new level of cognitive demand was added when students were asked to make predictions. “What do you think will happen when the wolf comes to the brick house?” Some students repeated and extended patterns the story gave us. “The wolf will come and say ‘Little pig, little pigs! Let me in!’” “I think he’ll blow the house down.” Other students proposed new ideas and outcomes to the story. “I don’t think he’ll be able to do it because brick is too heavy.” In either case, they began to make sense of the story patterns and elements, without the burden of knowing the right answer.

To increase the engagement through collaboration, students were paired up. Partner A had to tell why it made “sense” that the wolf would blow down the house. Partner B had to tell why it made “sense” that the wolf would not be able to blow down the house. Students were reminded to include something we learned from the text—we called this evidence. While some students were so excited about their first predictions and struggled to argue a different position, the majority of the learners stayed true the partner task. Energy increased as students participated in the collaboration and the increased cognition.

After we heard the rest of the story and cheered the pigs on their victory, the learners were asked to congratulate their partners on the “reasoning” of their thinking even if the author chose to end the story differently.

After a recess break, the students returned to the carpet and we reviewed the illustrations presented in the text. Students were then shown how to use the iPad app Explain Everything. With a new skill set of picture taking and recording our voices, the partners returned to their seats and used the app to capture their answer to the personal response question, “Which pig is the smartest pig in the story?” Now the students were truly cognitively engaged—they were making a claim about the content and backing it up with evidence from the text.

Derrik and Ty took a picture of the third little pig standing beside his brick home and recorded Derrik’s voice, “The third little pig was the smartest because he knew how to build a house out of very strong bricks. He saved all of his brothers, so he is the smartest.”

Shawna took a picture of the first pig playing his fiddle and dancing a jig and Carrie’s voice captured their thinking. “The first little pig is the smartest because he didn’t work too hard on his house and it didn’t take him a long time to build his house, so he had time to dance and play his music.”

Carter and Justine decided the second pig was the smartest. “He made a pretty strong house, but he was smart because he knew to go to his brother’s house when his house got blown up.”

This final task has us at the highest point of the engagement continuum. Students are making cognitive decisions—defining the concept of smart and then evaluating which pig is the smartest. Using technology added more value and control for the learners and allowed our non-readers and non-writers to articulate powerful personal response and decision making.

Engagement can be fun. Engagement is about energy. Engagement should drive cognition to deeper understanding and making meaning rather than simply accepting meaning from the text, the teacher, or the task.

Whether we are designing learning tasks for kindergarten or A.P. Chemistry, a big question we must ask ourselves is “How will students engage with the task?” Or better yet, “What engagement will our task demand from our learners?”

For more information about designing rigorous, engaging tasks, read Powerful Task Design.


Written by

John Antonetti is a learner. From thousands of students in pre-K through Graduate School, John has learned the three facets of powerful learning tasks—intellectual, academic, and emotional engagement. John Antonetti is a teacher. He has taught A.P Chemistry and Kindergarten and most grades in between in his home state of Arkansas. John Antonetti is a Corwin author and consultant. With Terri Stice, he has co-authored #PowerfulTaskDesign: Rigorous and Engaging Tasks to Level Up Instruction. From Terri, John has learned how to harness the power of technology to amplify the power of a highly-cognitive, engaging task.

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