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When talking about active engagement, it is a priority to know about what is meant by engagement and when it is active. Also we should know what factors affect engagement, what principles and techniques developed to achieve active engagement in classrooms and whether they are applicable in all learning situations and for all students in all schools or not i.e. to decide which technique fits who and where. There is an ancient proverb saying:
"Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.
(Ancient Chinese Proverb)
"Active engagement refers to the joint functioning of motivation, conceptual knowledge, cognitive strategies, and social interactions in literacy activities." (Guthrie & Anderson, 1999)
Meyers & Jones, (1993) states that active learning involves providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues and concerns of an academic subject. So, Engagement in learning is getting students involved willingly and interestingly with suitable motivations in their learning, and their engagement is active when they are deeply involved (sunken to their ears) in their learning from all forms and getting them participate effectively in their learning through giving them opportunities to fruitful talk and argument. As for myself - as a teacher of English- I consider engagement is active when I get my students involved in the four skills of English listening, speaking, reading and writing with me or with each other either inside or outside the classroom. "Analysis of a research literature (Chickering and Gamson 1987) "suggests that students must do more than just listen: They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing". (Bonwell, Charles C. - Eison, James A. 1991)" http://www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/91-9dig.htm
The teacher has a vital and essential role in achieving real and active engagement inside the classroom. He can step his students forward in their learning or step them back and this is what happened to me in personal when I was in first year secondary school. Because of my teacher of mathematics, my whole life changed. My hope was to study in the scientific department in the secondary school to become an oil engineer, but he made me hate mathematics and consequently, I turned to the literal department and became a teacher though I never thought of myself to be a teacher."Engaging students in learning is principally the responsibility of the teacher, who becomes less an imparter of knowledge and more a designer and facilitator of learning experiences and opportunities." http://www.ce.umn.edu .
There is a study concerning the relationship between the level of students' engagement and achievement in the elementary grades and the level of teacher's support. The researchers found that "Students with supportive teachers were 89% more likely to be engaged in school than those with average levels of support and 44% are more likely to have high levels of achievement and commitment than the average student." (Klem & Connell, 2004)" curry.edschool.virginia.edu
The teacher's role in engaging students appropriately in learning process is very important, as he is the best and appropriate person to know his student's skills and abilities and the best way to make use of them appropriately. The more the teacher is skilful and does more efforts supporting and feeding back his students, the more they are engaged in their learning, and "Pupils are more likely to be engaged in their learning when the teacher provides opportunities for them to construct solutions, learning or answers that they can back up with plausible reasons." (Pedagogy and Practice:Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. Unit 11: Active engagement techniques, 2004 p 2) ." If you are interested, involved and appropriately challenged then you are engaged with your learning" http://www.fionahogg.com. Therefore, active engagement is mainly the positive interaction between the student and the teacher.
Factors that affects student engagement
Many factors affect students' engagement in school. Willms J. D.(2003) said these factors include social, physical and economical factors. Some of these factors are related to the family or to student's motivations, and some are related to school i.e. teachers, school recourses, school environment, classroom activities, student's intelligence, background, prior knowledge, attitudes, skills and interests.
Active engagement will not happen if students are not interested in what they learn, the way they learn and the person who teaches it. There can be physical engagement in classroom even if students are not interested in their learning, but in this case learning will be just for vomiting information in exams only. For example, in Egyptian secondary schools where I worked for three years in three different secondary schools - students get into discussions and questioning just to get marks. Even if they hate the subject, they love marks resulted in it. However, once students like what they do and learn, their engagement will be active and fruitful, in other words- without exaggeration-, their engagement can be a kind of creativity because it will spring out of understanding the knowledge they learn not only memorising and vomiting it only to get marks. I consider Learning as a highway, getting and understanding knowledge is a destination, active engagement is a mean of transport to go along the highway and motivation and fit environment are the fuel on which the mean of transport runs to pass the highway to get to the aimed destination.
To create engagement in classrooms there should be some principles for doing so.
"Activating prior knowledge, Challenge, Cooperative group work- Metacognition- Modes of representing information - Scaffolds- Deep and surface learning.". (Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. Unit 11: Active engagement techniques, 2004 pp 4-7)
Activating prior knowledge
To engage students to current knowledge, teacher should help students make use of prior knowledge they have already learnt to understand the current knowledge. When students feel able to make use of their prior knowledge, they become encouraged to be engaged in new knowledge.
Challenge is an important principle. It is the level of thinking I - as a teacher - adapt in engaging students. If it is not above students' previous levels of knowledge, it will be useless because it will be a waste of time for a student doing effort to engage in learning knowledge he/she already achieved before. So teachers should create suitable level of challenge for their students, i.e. their challenge should not be too high so as not to frustrate students and not too low so as not to get them bored.
Cooperative group work
Group and peer work is a good technique for teaching small groups. It enables members of the group to help and support each other in their learning. For me it's hard to use group work most of the time because of the large number of students in my class, but I try hard to overcome this problem by pre organized group and rewarding the most organized and productive group.
Metacognition is learning about learning. It is "The ability to stand back from a difficult task to consider how it should be done, to monitor one's progress and priorities.(Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. Unit 11: Active engagement techniques, 2004 pp 4-7). When students have the chance to plan their work or reflect on the way they have done it, they are bitterly engaged in their learning. However, in many schools in Egypt that really does not happen because the teacher is still, as for students and their parents, the main and the best source of knowledge and the best and shortest ways to pass exams and get high marks.
Modes of representing information
It is a kind of converting knowledge from one shape to another to keep student engagement and focus. For example, when I give students a piece of a dialogue and ask them to make notes on it or give them a diagram and ask them to write a paragraph about it.
Scaffolds are all possible ways to help, guide and support student thinking just as questioning for examples. If I ask students to write a paragraph about building the pyramids, I can -if necessary- use questioning to help them focus on the main aim of the paragraph.
Deep and surface learning:
Deep learning is learning with high level of understanding and surface learning is learning with low level of understanding. The more students are motivated helped with their intelligence, Interests, skills and prior knowledge, the more they are engaged in their learning.
Methods of active engagement
There are many techniques to achieve active engagement such as well planed starter, Problem solving, Discussion, Questioning, Group work, Peer work, Brainstorming and Role-plays.
Discussion for understanding is an essential component in all the above-mentioned principles and strategies to achieve active engagement inside the classrooms especially peer and group work. According to my experience, large-numbered class and the culture of the society (i.e. although we are an Islamic society and group-work is an essential principle in Islam, but it is not adopted by most of people), peer and group work are sometimes hard to use inside a class of 65 girls who are not used to group working. I do not say it is not applicable, but it needs small groups to be effective and not to be a waste of time and effort. There is something else; to choose which technique and language to use to get students actively engaged depends on the gender of students. I used to work in a preparatory school for boys before the one for girls in which I work now. In the first school, I used to relate my sentences, questions, written texts to our two famous football team - Al Ahli and Al Zamalek. When I did so, students began to talk and make sentences using their own vocabulary. Besides, they prepared questions to challenge each other's information about the latest match. I aim to get them participate all the time using the vocabulary and structures they learned in speaking and that they do. With girls, the matter is different. They like drama and romantic songs and movies by nature, so I thought of another subject to get their attention and to get them use their language not only memorizing them. I began to assign them some stories from their book and role-play it. I found that they never forget what they acted because they liked it. Sometimes I ask them to write simple texts about the best song, singer or movie they like and get them discuss each other's opinions about that. Because of the large number of students in my class, I cannot do this very often, but I try. Something else hinders allowing more time for discussion inside the classrooms, it is the limited use of modern technology facilities and I mean here in the governmental schools. For example, there is only a multimedia lab to use computer and the overhead projector, so each class can only use this lab once or twice a week for each subject according to a pre-set timetable. If I want to use overhead projector to show my slides to save time writing on the board, I must then take the class to the lab.
Another factor that hinders students' engagement is the physical condition of the students. In UK schools students move between classes during the school day i.e. from classroom to another and that break boring daily routine. In Egypt, the matter is different. Students sit in the same desks and the same classrooms not only all day round, but also all year round. Moreover, the students are not allowed to go out of the classroom between lessons except in their break time to maintain discipline during the school day. That makes them bored generally after the fourth lesson, so if I teach a sixth, a seventh or an eighth lesson, I struggle to get their attention, but if they move between lessons, the matter will be different. Therefore, to achieve active engagement we should consider the principles and methods of active engagement according to the culture of the country and its facilities and resources.