Typhani Harris | May 2017

Defining Engagement: Learning with Others

Continuing our Defining Engagement through STEAM series, based on the research of John Antonetti and Phillip Schlechty, takes us to the next way we can articulate and define our student engagement.  Our sessions explain definitions, share strategies, provide templates and rubrics to self assess, and/or offer downloadable resources to ultimately define engagement in an actionable way.  Check out the introduction to this series here.

Just to recap, we have defined engagement through STEAM by assessing the use of Personal Response in Session 1 ,  introducing Variety and Novelty to help bring arts into school in Session 2.  Then we visualized the Emotional and Intellectual Safety needed in order for our students to truly engage in the classroom in Session 3 .  Session 4 covered how the Sense of Audience provides greater engagement especially in STEAM and Arts Integration and Session 5 revealed how Clear and Modeled Expectations improve assessments.

Session 6: Learning With Others

Collaborative learning experiences are so very important for our students.  In a 2015 Washington Post article, education writer Jeffrey Selingo describes how employers find current graduates lacking in soft skills like collaboration, problem solving, oral communication, and leadership.   We often manufacture “group work” in our classes with the intent to offer collaborative learning for our students, but the way we approach “group work” is a huge determining factor in the students ability to truly be collaborative.

Often we believe that if we put students in groups or with partners then we are creating an engaging environment for them, but the truth is only genuine group work is engaging. For example, if you have students work on an assignment that is an individual assignment, yet you allow them to work together then they are not actually completing group work. They are just working along side friend. Before you design group work or partner work ask yourself “is this genuine group work?” Meaning, do students HAVE to be in groups in order to successfully accomplish the objective. If the answer is “yes,” hooray! You are doing genuine group work. If the answer is “no’” then you are not. Either revise the expectation so it must be completed in groups in order to be successful, or take them out of groups. Remember to create a clear protocol for any group work. Determine who is responsible for what, what the roles of the members are, how the members will evaluate themselves and the group as a whole.

Learning must have a social component, and Antonetti suggests activities like Think, Pair, Share; Literature Circles; Small Group Discussions; Reciprocal Teaching, and Peer Revision or Review.

Class Discussions for Collaboration

One collaborative strategy that I love is class discussions.  Unfortunately, without proper preparation class discussions can fall flat. I have seen the verb discuss in multiple lesson plans and it always makes me wonder: how? How are you going to discuss? How are you going to set up the discussion? How are you going to make sure everyone has and uses their voice? How are you going to evaluate the discussion? How are you going to ensure the discussion was successful, and if it isn’t what are you going to do to follow up? Then, when I watch the discussion in action it is usually the teacher discussing with an occasional lower level question posed to the class and a couple students responding. This is not a class discussion.

Now, don’t get me wrong, class discussions can be an amazing way to practice Learning with Others as students get the opportunity to use their voices, present claims and defend ideals, and an even better way for the teacher to assess student knowledge.  However, they can also go terribly wrong if the proper planning and procedures are not in place.  Ultimately, we want to be sure all students are engaged and participating, we want to be sure that it is organized and not chaotic, and we want to be sure we are teaching students the skill of listening to understand, not just listening to reply.

Discussion Design

First of all, students should know and be able to create the proper environment for a class discussion whether it be a circle, square, horseshoe. Second, they need to know what to say and how to say it.  Practice Accountable Talk Stems with your students, which are ways to initiate and continue discussions.  Design academic controversies that spark discussion, where students will clearly have an opinion. The more relevant and “their world” the more they are going to want to discuss it.

You must also consider the assessment aspect. How are you evaluating the students? Is it solely participation based? Do you have a rubric where you are checking for specific things within the discussion? Are students a part of the evaluation process? Are they evaluating themselves as well as others during the discussion? (The answer is, yes…to all of that).

Now that we have highlighted some of the basic procedures, determine the format. There are a plethora of discussion formats out there, each with a multitude of variations so it is important you choose the one that you are most comfortable facilitating and, as always, tailor it to the needs of your students.

Get a copy of my 4 favorite class discussion formats, including the set up, structure, and participation style here!

Check out Fostering Engagement Through Choice next!

Session 8 takes a look at Student Choice as a means of student engagement in STEAM.

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.