Eyes Wide Shut: When you miss what’s right in front of you

Parenting is often an exercise in futility. A child asks for one thing and is at once aggravated that you have dared provide said thing. Case in point: a cup of water is only acceptable when it is presented in the appropriate cup. This is not news.

But the reverse is often true, when grown ups have unambiguous expectations (much like said cup of water) that once met are in fact disappointing or not exactly what said grown up had envisioned. Stay with me…

Exhibit A: Last night I was reading a chapter of Percy Jackson to my 7-year-old son. It was the most exciting part of the chapter where the young hero is battling the minotaur in an effort to not only save his life but the life of his beloved mother.

Said 7-year-old is bopping around on the couch beside me, alternating between petting the dog and digging for hidden treasure in his nose. Out of frustration I stop reading and immediately his body becomes still, his eyes narrow, and he demands: why did you stop?

“You’re not paying attention,” I say.

“Yes I am!” he replied. “Luke just pulled Grover out of the car and he and his mom are trying to get to that big Christmas tree you just described because there’s a camp on the other side.”

While moving around and seemingly distracted he appears to know exactly what’s going on. At least this time…

Exhibit B: Monday evening my 9-year-old is sitting at the dinner table finishing up his math homework where he is asked to solve problems using “U.S. traditional subtraction” (a topic for another day). In front of him are two four digit numbers. I watch as he stares absentmindedly into oblivion.

“Do you not remember how to solve the problem using this method?” I ask.

“The answer is 1,006,” he states casually.

He is right (this time). The question asks that he solves the problem, which he did…nothing about showing his work.

So what?

Each instance is not only a lesson in the futility of imposing your beliefs about engagement on your children, it is also an illustration of the wide range of behaviors that constitute engagement. Also it’s an illustration that all actions are not created equal.

Each example serves to demonstrate that what successful engagement looks like to the observer may not actually be successful for the learner.

Why does this matter? When private and public industry use engagement as a metric for success, whether by promoting engaged employees or deciding upon successful pilot programs, the metrics may not be valid.

For instance, on a learning walk through a public school students and teachers are observed for five to fifteen minutes (that’s not a typo) which includes documentation of the actions taken by both students and teachers along with a few brief questions asked to see if the children know the purpose of the activity. The teacher is then scored on a scale of engagement with the higher levels correlating to more action as well as students who know the purpose of their actions.

What’s wrong with this model? Many things. Namely, that students are often only perceived as learning if they’re moving and talking. While this is may be true sometimes it is not always the case. Next is the limited time to truly observe, and therefore calibrate, student understanding as it relates to the teacher’s goals for instruction. Further, while teachers are alerted ahead of time the activities observed may not only be inauthentic but may be inaccurate in seeing how truly gifted the educator is at supporting a variety of students in thinking critically and intentionally about their learning.

If students and teachers know they’ll be observed for active engagement how valid is the data that is collected? If a mere five minutes is required without regard for the content how authentic is the engagement and how likely is it to cultivate learning? Where is the reliability of repeated observations during comparable topics over many experiences when using such measures?

What now?

An N of two does not a study make. To extrapolate from two experiences that during read-alouds children should also be doing yoga or during math instruction pencils should not be required is not good science. But good science is allowing for multiple approaches or actions towards an outcome without labeling all engagement, or action towards an intended outcome as requisitely similar.

Deep engagement is correlated with stronger learning outcomes, but engagement itself does not always look the way we’d assume. Child A heard every word of the story while child B could calculate a complex problem without the use of a pencil. Will that always be the case for these children? Will they always demonstrate successful engagement towards an intended outcome (recall and computation)? Probably not. But from an outsider’s view, what their engagement LOOKED like and what their learning SHOWED was counter to intuition and should be taken into consideration when labeling successful forms of engagement and using those metrics to evaluate people, processes, or products.

Before we continue down the path of tools that may inappropriately extrapolate from observation, it makes sense to come to a shared understanding: engagement looks different for every person, it is what someone DOES after being engaged in an event that demonstrates understanding.

But all is not lost, there are metrics to accurately capture engagement and learning and then make inferences. What’s more, those metrics will qualitatively shift the way we perceive of engagement and learning in the first place.

Stay tuned…

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