Engagement is such a vague term, yet, all schools are trying to achieve it. The biggest problem with engagement lies in the measurement and interpretation of how a school is doing. Vibert & Shields (2003) point out that engagement is different for each situation (p. 3). Engagement is not something that we can measure on a baseline, because it may not look even remotely similar from one school to the next. Engagement lies in the hidden curriculum, the identity, and the community developed within a school (Vibert & Shields, 2003, pp. 8 – 9). We can recognize school engagement when we know the hidden curriculum of a school as well as how they define themselves and their community – what is success in their terms?
The major point that resonated with me in this article explained what doesn’t make up engagement. “Students engagement is [often] identified with both compliance and involvement,” (Vibert & Shields, 2003, p. 4). The subjects questioned explained engagement as “compliance”, and that really bothers me. I can recall being in my internship (and first year teaching) and having observers come in to watch me teach and pulling out a diagram similar to the one on the right. The x’s represent a student who “wasn’t participating in the lesson”. What does that mean? Were they sleeping? Were they playing with their pencil? Were they talking? Were they doodling? Personally, in order for me to listen, I need to be drawing something – but if this observer saw me in a classroom, I wouldn’t be participating. If students were talking, maybe they were talking about the lesson – which is better than if they sat silently.
This just illustrates how hard it is to measure student engagement – particularly to measure it without personal bias. The concept of engagement is never neutral (Vibert & Shields, 2003, p. 9). If it isn’t neutral, it cannot be measured quantitatively – so our normal approach of analyzing the numbers is useless!
Reference: Vibert, Ann B. & Shields, Carolyn (2003). Approaches to student engagement: Does ideology matter? McGill Journal of Education, 38 (2), 221-240