There were 7 heads down, earphones in, focussing on computer monitors and keyboards. The marking season is here. It’s part of a cycle of migration where students thinking and words are mobilised from student owned spaces to the hinterland of academia, aka Turnitin. Out of the hard won concentration and quiet came the phrase ‘And the student asked, did he make the BoBo doll himself?’ It’s such moments which make marking a sharing activity, an exchange, discussion about student cognition, understanding, marking criteria and outcomes. During one such interlude it was the BoBo doll question. A colleague shared his surprise when during a session on Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (more here) a student asked ‘Did he make the BoBo doll himself?’ Well, there’s no potential planning for this question. It’s unanticipated and on initial glance it seems unconnected, off-task, disconnected from the lesson focus, and no way relevant to any pre-determined objectives or outcomes. But is it?
I like this question. It’s clearly divergent. It’s a cool question. I wouldn’t have thought of it. Perhaps that’s why I think it’s so great. I didn’t understand what it was at first that connected with me until I noticed a copy of Kes by Barry Hines on my table. It was when the teacher Mr Farthing, played by the late Colin Welland in the film, was asking the class to tell stories, pg 64 onwards in my copy. Through socratic dialogue with Mr Farthing, a reluctant Billy was cajoled to share his story of training Kes, a kestrel. Have a look at 1:08:50 in the film Kes. An interesting book to have on a student teacher reading list. See summer reading.
The penny dropped, the student like Billy became engaged. Perhaps not with what was expected and planned but he was attending, had been interested, involved and actively participated. These engagement activities are identified in the HEA Literature Review of student engagement. They are part of a continuum of individual student learning (pg12). If student engagement is defined as the degree of student attention, curiosity, interest, optimism and passion (Education Glossary) that students show when being taught, then this student ticked at least 3 of these 5 behaviours: attention, interest and curiosity. Meanwhile, Billy gets 4 ticks from me for passion, optimism, curiosity and interest.
The HEA literature review presents a whole range of activities under the umbrella term of student engagement. A further 3 dimensions are outlined by Fredericks, Blumenfield and Paris:
- Behavioural – attendance and involvement
- Emotional – interest
- Cognitive – seek to go beyond the requirements.
I’m happy to tick 2 out of 3 for the BoBo doll student. I think some might argue that the student didn’t reach the cognitive requirements for No. 3 never mind going beyond. However, I would argue that he took a different route. He had a different map and geography of the lesson. The question was authentic, the student was curious about something which could quickly be dismissed and labelled as the wrong thing. But something in the lesson had meaning, just like the student in the first few minutes of this TED talk. So, tick No. 3 for curiosity.
Our maps of learning outcomes and lesson plans are just that, our maps. They’re our subjects. I simply love the way the student was constructing new knowledge in his own way. It’s perfectly legitimate. His question was a big deal to going on and developing meaning and understanding. It came from part of his lived experience. He felt safe to take a risk and ask the question. What was it that sparked the students’ curiosity? He was thinking differently whilst being brave and secure enough to share his meaning making with the teacher and peers.
Noticing this moment left a buzz of interest and curiosity. A trigger to consider the context of the students question and its meaning. I followed a path of student engagement as this is what came to mind. As I’m finishing writing I’m aware that it could have been about so many other aspects of learning and teaching. Cognitive load suddenly springs into my head but that’ll wait for another moment.
I’m going to listen more to my students questions and notice the assumptions I’m making before responding.
Further ideas and suggestions to improve student engagement in your classroom are here.