The latest craze in pedagogy is an emphasis on increasing student engagement. While I have some sympathy with many of the aims of this movement, I think there are some important questions that need to be addressed as well.
What is engagement? In institutions of higher learning, many faculty members are less than enthusiastic about the project of increasing student engagement. Why should this be? I think, in part, it relates to how new ideas of pedagogy are often expressed. Listen to this definition of student engagement from a widely read text: “Student engagement is a process and a product that is experienced on a continuum and results from the synergistic interaction between motivation and active learning.” Huh? This is classic academic jargon which, to many, says nothing. How can you be enthused about increasing a “synergistic interaction between motivation and active learning?” I’m sure this means something positive but I’m not sure what it means!
Why is engagement the responsibility of the professor? Here’s another questions worth asking. The more I read about the importance of networking, personal branding, and the changes in work and the workplace the more it seems that individuals will succeed based on their ability, their initiative, their creativity, and their persistence. How are we helping them if we send the message that all they need to do is wait to be engaged? What incentive do students have to find subjects engaging or to make subjects engaging if professors are responsible for their level of engagement?
Can you engage students who are not prepared to learn college-level material? Here I think the answer many are finding is: yes. You can engage them as long as you don’t use the college level material to do so. But, what is the benefit of engagement if it doesn’t then lead to learning the material? I can engage my students in many ways (I’m assuming engagement means generating interaction, discussion, and response). But, I have the most success when I drop references to my subject entirely. In other words, their engagement is inversely related to the topic of discussion. Is this a fault of my teaching technique?
The subjects I teach (philosophy and ethics in particular) seem to require two things: students need to be able to think about thinking and to apply abstract concepts to real world scenarios. But, these higher-order skills are built on a foundation of other skills and knowledge. In order to thoughtfully engage with a question like “What do you think about that philosopher’s theory on politics?” you need to have had some previous thoughts about politics. Thinking critically about politics implies some knowledge of a whole set of concepts that many students simply have not learned. Given this, how do you increase engagement? Quality engagement related to the subject I mean, not aimless discussion for the sake of discussion.