• In Other Words

Engage Students (and Entertain Them a Little, too!)

by Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford
May 8, 2014
Engaged Children in the Classroom
photo credit: horizontal.integration
via photopin cc

“I am not here to entertain students. I am here to teach them to learn specific content and skills,” commented a teacher in a workshop we were conducting. Imagine her surprise when we agreed with her!

In our research on motivation and engagement, which led to creating our joyful learning framework, we discovered that the terms engagement and entertainment are often used synonymously when they are anything but alike. Below, we point out the differences and provide some student engagement suggestions. We are drawing these thoughts from our most recent work, “Engaging Minds in the Classroom: The Surprising Power of Joy.”

What is engagement?

Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) defined engagement as the visible outcome of motivation, the natural capacity to direct energy in the pursuit of a goal. It usually happens when learners can sense success is within their reach, they value the outcome of the learning experience, and they feel safe in the classroom setting (Brophy, 2008).  

Engaging  Minds in the Classroom: The Surprising Power of JoyAttentive, committed, persistent, and meaning seekers are four characteristics of engaged learners (Schlecty, 2011). During a whole-group lesson, a teacher would look for attentive students who are focused on completing a given task and persist if the task becomes difficult because they value what they are doing and derive meaning from it.

One sure way to double-check these observations is to talk with students as they complete their work and listen to what they have to say about it. Engaged students might make comments such as “I am having trouble understanding this section but I really want to know about how gravity works. I think I need to look at more of the diagrams to help me understand.”  

So what is entertainment?

The difference between entertainment and engagement is clear if we just think about the two words. We know that entertaining students is fairly easy (remember the Friday afternoon video?). As Katz and Chard (2000) remind us, engagement involves getting students interested in the word around them.

If students become interested in their world, they will always be able to find something that interests them in their lives. Engagement draws us into our daily lives, whereas entertainment does the opposite; we seek it out to distract us from our daily lives. It diverts us from attending to important matters. In the end, entertainment is fairly fleeting and short-lived.

So why make the distinction between these two terms?

As educators, our job is to engage students rather than entertain them. We get them engaged by providing tasks that enable them to be attentive, committed, and persistent learners who strive to understand what they are learning, which leads to sustainable and longer-lasting pleasure than when they are entertained. Engaged students and teachers derive joy and pleasure from what they do; they do not need to be entertained (Schlecty, 2011).

So what does this mean for educators?

While we emphasize the importance of engagement over entertainment, we also recognize that a bit of entertainment can lead students to engagement. In these instances, we want to use entertainment. For example, we might decide to dress up as a historical figure to engage students in learning about that figure. Or we might use a humorous story to entice students to learn content.

We fully recognize that having fun allows students to build social relationships. Rather than seeing engagement and entertainment as an “either/or” issue, we suggest using both in purposeful ways to gain a full understanding of how engagement and entertainment contribute to the larger picture. Entertainment becomes a means rather than the end.

Using props, humor, and other activities that students find fun in purposeful and meaningful ways can lead to engaged students. Engaged students are more joyful in their learning pursuits. As a result, their learning is learning with staying power. In essence, joy leads students to learning rather than away from it.

You can see Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford at IRA's 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans, when they present, "Using Joyous Effort to Engage Learners and Create Urgency, Agency, and Responsibility" on Saturday, May 10th, at 1 p.m.

Michael F. Opitz is professor emeritus of reading education at the University of Northern Colorado, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses. An author and literacy consultant, Michael provides inservice and staff development sessions and presents at state and international conferences and also works with elementary school teachers to plan, teach, and evaluate lessons focused on different aspects of literacy. He is the author and coauthor of numerous books, articles, and reading programs.

Michael P. Ford is chair of and professor in the Department of Literacy and Language at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He is a former Title I reading and 1st grade teacher. Michael is the author of 5 books and more than 30 articles. Michael has worked with teachers throughout the country and his work with the international school network has included staff development presentations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America.

Friends and colleagues for more than two decades, Opitz and Ford began working together as a result of their common reading education interests. Through their publications and presentations, they continue to help educators reach readers through thoughtful, purposeful instruction grounded in practical theory.

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