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In conversation with Eddie Woo - Student engagement

Eddie Woo discusses the importance of student engagement, and defines what this means, explaining the research and giving some practical advice [Duration: 23:54].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

Hi, I'm Shannan Salvestro Literacy Coordinator K to 12 for the NSW Department of Education. This morning, I have travelled to Cherrybrook Technology High School and I'm sitting in a room with Eddie Woo. He's very nicely agreed to have a chat with us about engaging students. Eddie, thank you for having me here today.

Eddie Woo

Shannan, it's quite okay, thanks for dropping by.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah, great. I chose this topic with you in mind. I just had a sneaky suspicion that you might have some good insights and some information and hot tips that you can share with other schools and teachers. Let's start by defining what we actually mean by engaging students. Is it simply just getting their attention?

Eddie Woo

I think one of the easiest misconceptions to fall into is that an engaged student is a busy student. I remember thinking that when I was very early career. I would walk past the classroom and I would see everyone with their heads down, everyone be furiously, busily doing a task. And I'm like, wow, that looks like engagement. And it didn't take that long until I was in my own classroom. And I would sometimes set a task where I, I thought, okay, yes, everyone is, is doing something, they must be engaged. But when I spoke to students, when I interacted with them and, and try to, you know, do some little formative assessment within the lesson, I quickly established they were not engaged in learning, they were engaged in a task, but that didn't mean they were actually developing or, or challenging their own assumptions or building new skills.

So for me and what student engagement means is, are they actually engaged with the content skills at building a conceptual framework, establishing a new perspective on an idea that it is actually going to expand their knowledge and understanding of an area. For me, when I think about students who are often, for example, in a mathematics class, it's a really typical thing to say, okay, I'm, I'm going to teach from the front of the classroom and then going to give you some examples. I don't expect you to use the skills that I've just demonstrated in a series of your own exercises. All the way through that, It's tempting to think, okay, if everyone's quiet, yeah, it looks like they're paying attention. It's tempting to say they're engaged that whole time. And I'm sure some of them will be, but a significant proportions of that class may not be engaged at all because that explanation is either too fast or too slow for them. The task that they've been given might be something which they can go through mechanically without developing any understanding or growing in any way. And so engagement I think is something which is it's really about the student experience and what they're getting out of that. If they aren't growing in their knowledge and skill, I don't think they're engaged.

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah, absolutely. So you hinted there at perhaps a few factors which impact on student engagement. What do you think are some of those little factors that can impact?

Eddie Woo

When I'm picturing a student and whether they are engaged or not, and if they are disengaged, what is it that I as a teacher can do to assist that, probably the two main things in my mind are number one, where is the student coming from? Where, where have they arrived from cognitively, socially, behaviourally, what's their context that then I'm expecting to place them into a lesson from. And secondly, what is it that I as the teacher I'm doing in the classroom? And I think it's really important to keep those two pieces together. Because I think, I think back to university when I was learning how to plan an engaging task and I would go and do my research and I would think, okay, I want to teach fractions, decimals and percentages. What's a really interesting hook that I could read? How will I design what the students are going to participate in, what they're going to create?

And I would think a lot about that. But often I ignored that students are coming into that classroom with very different assumptions, very different backgrounds, very different pieces of interconnected knowledge or, or gaps in their knowledge, which I was not taking into account in my task design. And so as a consequence, even though I thought I came in with this whizz-bang lesson, I was going to be really it, much to my surprise, the kids were disengaged. So I think that those two pieces there, they've got to be front and centre in the mind at the same time for any teacher who wants to engage their students.

Shannan Salvestro

So it's kind of like you're trying to marry what works best on a whole class level and what you're thinking about your content how you present that, but you have to marry that in with these individual students in the classroom.

Eddie Woo

I mean, I think the Australian professional standards for teaching lay out so clearly that standard one standard two know their students, how they learn, learn, know content skills and how to teach it. And you cannot while we can articulate them separately in the classroom, you can't divorce them they have to offer it together.

Shannan Salvestro

What are the signs that they're engaged in learning and that it's like that, that engagement's may have a positive impact on their learning.

Eddie Woo

Yeah. So I think you've three dimensions that.. I'm very heavily leaning on the research of Doctor Catherine Attard who is a, she's a primary mathematics focused educator who works at Western Sydney University. And she talks about engagement as having these different dimensions. And I use them as my lens through which I try and work out. These are student engagement, not so off the top of my head is the affective dimension, the cognitive dimension. And the social dimension. I want to see is, is this child, what is their emotional state as they set about in the task? Are they, are they responding with me? I mean it's even as simple as things like posture or the look in someone's eyes. Are they, are they leaning forward? How much are they responding to me verbally and nonverbally in the classroom as I do something perhaps beside them from the front of the classroom or as I'm just watching them sort of set about their own task?

And that's sometimes difficult to quantify, but it is no less important in terms of me saying, yes, that kid is switched on. Sometimes it is literally from the look in their eyes and I can tell. But that by itself is not enough. I can as a, as a teacher using my 10 plus years of professional judgment, still look at someone, I think, I think they're really switched on but other factors tell me otherwise. So there's that cognitive dimension. Yeah, I mentioned before, formative assessment, I think all forms of assessment as I speak to a student, as I question them, as I give them, as I give them a summative assessment task at the end of things. And did that student really learn how to differentiate polynomial functions and be able to come up with the answer accurately?

Well, if they were engaged with the task that set help them set about learning that, then I, then I will see that, through their cognitive demonstration, their display, the communication of those knowledge and skills. So that has to be near that cognitive peace. And then lastly, that social piece, I think that knowledge is constructed socially. I mean we can, we can do that as individuals, but if we can't, for example, share those ideas with others. And one of my favourite quotes is you do not understand something truly until you can explain it simply. And I think often in the classroom, I, one of the things which we'll probably touch on later is a peer tutoring initiative that I've introduced to my school in mathematics and students who volunteer to tutor our senior students in Year 11. So to stage six, and I'm, I'll have them help out your seven or eight students and they'll say, oh, okay, no problem.

This is your seven or eight maths. It's so easy. And then I put them to task and it's really whatever question it is that their student, their little the student they mentoring to help them out. And they might come to something like say long division, which is something they can do. They can perform the algorithm, but they realise by placing them themselves in the position of having to explain that. They realise that they do not understand why long division works and so I'm looking for that social piece. Are you able to demonstrate the evidence of your engagement in in that social context? Do I see you actually interacting with others, helping out a peer or perhaps articulating your question when you don't understand something to the person beside you or another member of the class? When I look at all three of those aspects and dimensions together, that gives me a really consistent sense of is this student engaged or are they not?

Shannan Salvestro

I'm glad you mentioned peer tutoring. That's something that we're having in very big chat about yesterday. It it's very powerful. So what about high expectations of your students? How does that come into play as well? Is that important for engagement? I guess it comes back to knowing your students again, doesn't it?

Eddie Woo

Yeah, I definitely think that expectations are a huge piece of engagement and that's I feel very easy to illustrate by counterexample. I've, as a mathematics teacher walked into so many classes where I could see students are disengaged as a clear, there's a very dramatic cause and effect relationship between an environment in which they are not expected to be able to achieve in a particular level. And so why would the students therefore put the effort, be motivated to engage with something that's frankly very difficult, often abstract. If you already think I'm not going to do very well this.

I remember very clearly walking into a classroom at the beginning of the year and meeting a Year 10 class that had a.... there were a lower achieving class for many years and had been. The whole class was composed of students who had struggled to meet learning outcomes from every academic year they'd been through. I remember introducing myself to this class and being very enthusiastic. And as the weeks and months progressed in this class, I'll never forget it was about week seven of term two. So these kids have known me for a good three, four months now. And I walked into the classroom the way I usually do with enthusiasm and the, one of the girls said to me, sir, you're not given up yet. Like why aren't you not? This really struck me because, in a flash, I realised that this student, this is what I mean by low expectations.

This student had been through 10 years of education, having had low expectations given to them, delivered to them verbally and nonverbally. So she was just kind of waiting for me. She was waiting for the penny to drop and she was kind of like, so some teachers have the slow, but it's seven... you've had me for seventeen weeks by now, shouldn't you have worked this out?

Shannan Salvestro

So what did you do?

Eddie Woo

Well, I said to her this, my role is I'm a teacher. I'm here in this classroom, in this school because I'm here to grow you. If I didn't think that were possible, I wouldn't be here. That's why I, that's why I come to work every day and it's why I enter your classroom with the expectation. With the high expectation that no matter what concept I'm teaching you today, whether it's algebra or trigonometry or solving equations, I do expect you to be able to meet that.

And perhaps that will require some scaffolding perhaps that will require some differentiation in the kind of product that I expect you to arrive at the end of this lesson with. But I absolutely expect you to have the capacity to engage with this. And so I think that when that environment is not there, that's almost like you're signing a check to kids to say, well, you don't think that I could do this, so why should I bother trying? So I think that that expectation is a necessary but not sufficient. A prerequisite for student engagement. Obviously you're work do if all you do is say it,

I expect to hold space. I do provide the environment and support for them

Shannan Salvestro

I'm getting the idea that it's it. This is kind of like that, like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to have all the pieces in there too, to be, to have it complete, to be successful. And that one little part of this, this isn't enough.

Eddie Woo

I think about it a little bit like, and maybe this is because I went to an agricultural high school or so for six years. This has been a metaphor dropped into my head. But I think about learning and student engagement rather like, I think about the growth of the plant. When a plant grows, it needs water and nutrients in the soil and sunshine. It needs all of these things. Each one on its own isn't enough, but, but if you do combine them all together, the results can be wonderful. And it's not because we as teachers, we're able to produce some artificial constructs here, the children themselves, have the capacity to learn. All we're doing is providing the environment that can unlock that learning.

Shannan Salvestro

Love it. We could make a beautiful poster after that. Eddie, I'm looking at your book over there 'Woo's Wonderful World of Maths'. I haven't read it yet. I will. I promise I will. But I, I have a feeling that your understandings of, of student engagement and all those pieces in the puzzle could possibly have helped you write that book. Yeah.

Eddie Woo

Yeah. For me, this book came out of, in many ways, that exact journey that I was.. I mean I wouldn't describe myself as disengaged with maths when I was at school, but I certainly didn't engage with the subject and the discipline in as deep a way as I could, I, I sort of stayed at a superficial level. I could perform algorithms and solve problems and come up with answers that were mostly the one that was in the back of the book. And so I got, I got ticks on my work and did reasonably well, but there were many things that I never..... I remember going to university and hearing people who are career mathematicians and they would describe the subject as beautiful and elegant. And I just thought, yeah, what subject are you talking about? I mean, I didn't mind maths, but I didn't think of it like that. Yeah. I got on the journey 15 years ago now when I started to become a teacher and engage with this subject for a different reason because I didn't just want to pass an exam. I wanted to give a genuine and authentic reason to the students I was going to teach it. Yes, this matters. Yes, you should absolutely invest time and effort into it because of this. It was through getting on that journey and engaging with the subject in a deeper way that I realised, oh, now I see what those mathematicians were talking about and I made all of these discoveries that about the subject that I didn't know when I was at school. And it was those discoveries in that the product of that deeper engagement, that engagement at a deeper level with mathematics that sort of created the book.

Shannan Salvestro

Great? I can't wait to read it. Can we do something else that, can we do a scenario, I'm going to set a little scene and talk through maybe some your hot tips on how, on what we could do in, in a situation such as this. So here's, here's the scene. Here's the same, we've got a teacher in a high school we won't say what subject. She's just a teacher. Any subject. She has been looking at the information that she has on her students in terms of an assessments, recent assessments. They're looking she's looking at it and thinking, but I, taught this, why aren't they learning this? So I mean, I've taught this and not understanding Why what she's seeing isn't showing evidence of what she taught. She's recently heard about an exercise of just sitting back and observing students while they're, working in the classroom. And so next lesson she does that she sits down and she observes a student for a minute, writes some notes, observes another individual student for a minute writes some notes, she tries that her notes, let's just, let's just choose a few random examples of her notes. So for her first student that she observed, she has written something like, student is sitting, doodling, drawing a picture hasn't attempted the task that he was given. Next student, this student is working, but very slowly keeps stopping chatting to the student next to her. But it is not, it's off task chat. Let's just have one more student example of it, of the observation comment. This student hasn't started doing anything, has just been sitting. She actually has written in her notes asks student Where is your book? Student has replied "my books at home having more fun than me". Okay, brilliant. Yeah. So let's say that you had a chance to have a chat with his teacher and, and, and, and talk through her situation.

What would be hot tips? What could she do?

Eddie Woo

The first thing that immediately comes to mind is a quote I remember from one of my university lecturers. And this was coming in the context of I think us, yeah. Third or fourth year university students had just come back from one of our practicums and student teachers famously struggle with classroom management and engaging students so this comment in the lecture came in that context and the lecture, he said 99% of the problems that you see in class, they started outside of class. And so my first thought is these three children, what is going on in that context that has led them to this? Yeah. Are they are they in between mum and dad's home at the moment.

So they don't even have one of the reasons perhaps this, the student who has left their book at home, maybe one of the things that are, they're trying to avoid saying is. I left, I left it at mom's house. I'm currently living with dad at the moment. I can't, I just can't get there. And I don't want to, I don't want to start a big conversation about that now, but it's just too hard. It's just in the too hard basket and I can't fix it now. So I'm just going to..... that's my response. That's why I'm liking that. Perhaps another student has just had a fight at lunchtime and is now therefore struggling to get themselves into the head space where they're thinking a, yeah, okay, that one, I'm reading an essay or I'm trying to solve a maths problem and I'm just not emotionally there to gain focus and to get these distractions out of my mind.

So the immediate first thought is these three kids, they've come into my lesson and that lesson for me, I had my lesson plan, I was going to have my opener and then my body and then conclude but that opening didn't go to plan, unsurprisingly, because the beginning of my lesson was not the beginning of that student's experience of learning that day. So I want to get a better sense of the holistic context that that student, those students rather have come into my classroom. Then my next thought I'm going to that. So I guess in some ways that's the that's the affective and that social dimension we're talking about before I know what to think about the cognitive dimension, these students are disengaged and this, this child, for example, who's busy doodling, why is it that they've struggled to then to then begin? Perhaps it was that there was something in the way that I introduced that task or just, you know, I remember I would, I plan out my lessons as an early career teacher and I would have my instructions all perfectly laid out and I would say them precisely once and I would expect my students. And then just knowing exactly what it didn't clear as crystal like or was in my head I expected them to engage and I realised that, in fact, I'd say something and if I spoke for any longer than 90 seconds, then the first thing that I said was forgotten by the time I got to the last thing. And they'd say, wait, what are we supposed to be doing again? And so I am thinking about what was the way in which I introduced that task that perhaps left students a bit confused and at their own devices in, like I don't even know where to start. And I don't want to put my hand up because I'll feel I'll feel silly doing that amongst my peers. And I'm also wondering, are there pieces of knowledge or skill that I have assumed by students are in possession of or have mastered that they clearly have not.

And so therefore they come to my task and I've told them to have a go at the quadratic formula. And I'm expecting this to, this could be that they are laying the foundation which allows it to engage substantively with the tasks that I've provided for them. Yesterday I was with some early action for success schools as part of the building numeracy leadership initiative. And one of the things which Michelle Tregoning, who's taking the lead on a lot of that part of the numeracy aspect of that, one of the things that she was explaining was that great degree of sophistication and complexity there is even at a Kindergarten level for students counting to five. And as a high school teacher I'm kind of like, what do you mean 'counting to five'? You just count to five and she'd talk about abstraction and cardinality and order in difference and all of these complex, concepts underneath it are all interrelated.

And if a student doesn't have all those pieces beforehand and then here I am say, okay everyone, I expect that you're ready to count to five. And off we go talking about subtraction, we are not ready for that at all. That's right. So as a teacher, I would say to this person who's made these observations, what assumptions have we made about students' knowledge and skill that perhaps need to be revisited? And we investigated to see if perhaps there are pieces missing that that's why the student is disengaged because they're not, they're not going from A to Z. They're actually behind A, they're not ready for that first point. That I thought was the beginning, but they're actually not there yet. Yeah.

Shannan Salvestro

So it doesn't sound like there's a quick fix, but they're certainly sounds like there's things there that you could immediately tweak and change to put the steps into motion to, to be able to get there.

Eddie Woo

Absolutely. I mean, I think you pointed out that there are definitely things that I could do right, that classroom just to say, okay, well I'm going to sit beside each of these kids that I'm just going to ask them, okay, where are you up to? Can you take me back to, I see you're having trouble with this. Can you take them back to the last thing it was that you did understand and I do that frequently with kids when they come to me with a problem and they arrive at their point of confusion and that's why they put up their hand and I said that's okay, I can help you with that. But in order to bring you to, if I just give you an answer to your point of confusion, it will be often a disconnected piece of abstract knowledge. Yeah. There's this gap in between the part that you did understand it. Now we're here. I'm not much to go back there because I can build upon that and then actually we can go to and we could get to, we could make some progress. I think there's immediate strategies are very important, but if you engage with is a long-term game and that's why I think it's so important to understand where the students are.

Shannan Salvestro

And would that be something to not only have a chat to that individual teacher about but perhaps look at what's going on at a whole school level to support that as well and have a, have a culture of student engagement within the school itself.That's a much bigger beast.

Eddie Woo

Absolutely yeah. I think that, one of the things, this is a comment, which obviously is a little more relevant to the cell secondary context, but one of the things which I've gained the most from and have always felt like, oh, I don't have time to do this, but I've come to say, actually, you know what? You don't have time not to do this is to, if you've got a student in your class, you're like, Shannan's really struggling in my class, what's going on here? My first port of call is I've got to talk to all of Shannan's other teachers, and very often I will get a picture that forms up.

Yeah. You know what? She's actually, she's disengaging with every KLA she's really struggling. There's something bigger going on or maybe actually they you know what she's fine in visual arts. She is loving PE, what's going on in English. That is the reason why she just seemed sort of fall off. Maybe that's more of a sign, it's something cognitive going on. Something in her continuum with learning that's fallen off. Socially I don't think there's any problems because otherwise I'd observed that across the board. That's right and even if it's in a primary context it might not be my colleagues who teach her currently it might be who had the last year, what was going on. I want to get those pieces there because we are teaching children not teaching subject first and so we want an understanding of the students.

Shannan Salvestro

I just loved it how you said 'I don't have time for this', but you don't not have time this because I was actually thinking before when you were talking about finding out about each of those students and you know what if they come to the classroom with have they just had issues at home or something happened in the playground and all those or taking the time to talk to teachers. I'm thinking, Gosh, in a, in a busy classroom with all these children, how do you have the time to, to make that connect with each and every one? So that was really, really, really good that you said you don't not have the time to do it.

Eddie Woo

Yeah and Shannan one of the things we said before this teacher perhaps is feeling frustrated, upset. I've taught them this. Why is it not clicking? And often I feel we end up by not taking these time, consuming, but I'd say investments of time to try and get at the root of what's going on. We end up chasing our tail spending so much work teaching and reteaching concept when actually there was something fundamental that we were missing.

Shannan Salvestro

A little tweak you could make.

Eddie Woo

That's right. And you know, we're actually, we don't need to keep beating our head against a brick wall if we question our assumptions about why our teaching practices are not engaging your students. Maybe that's the really important piece that would change the engagement level of the student.

Shannan Salvestro

Fantastic. Thank you for your insight.

Eddie Woo

My pleasure Shannan.

Shannan Salvestro

If you would like to learn more about this topic, we've got some links to some further reading and suggested resources in the notes and on our webpage. If you'd like to suggest an idea for a podcast, just email literacy.numeracy@det.nsw.edu.au, and just put 'podcasts' in subject line.

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