Must lessons be entertaining to be engaging?

The vast majority of my lessons follow a similar format:

  1. Starter- When I do one it tends to either be about what we did last lesson, about the assumed knowledge for this lesson, general numeracy or a puzzle of some sort. Last 5 minutes. Many pupils miss most or all of this as the site is large and it takes 5 minutes to get to my room from some parts of the building and I don’t want more than 5 minutes taken up with the starter.
  2. Explanation- I show the pupils what I want them to do. Ask them some questions, draw stuff out of them through discussions, get them to use mini whiteboards. This takes about 10 minutes
  3. Task 1- will take a hard working, averagely bright for the class pupil about 15-20 minutes. Takes some pupils the rest of the lesson. Pupils work in pairs generally unless their behavior requires them to work alone.
  4. Mini-plenary- Generally going through half the answers to task 1 and picking up anything that hasn’t been understood.
  5. Task 2- Generally a more difficult or a different type of task on the same topic. Matching exercises, nrich activity or task with more open questions. Some pupils will not do much of this as they will be finishing task 1
  6. Plenary- A couple of exam questions with answers and/or more going through answers from tasks 1 and/or 2.

I tweak the lesson when I’m being observed so that it’s more like what I think the observer wants to see.

Sometimes pupils find my lesson “fun” although they seem to use the words “fun” and “easy” interchangeably. Sometimes they find it “boring” although they seem to use “boring” and “hard” in a similar interchangeable fashion. Lessons were pupils can do the work are rarely described as “boring”. Lessons were pupils struggle to do the work are rarely described as “fun”.

I never plan my lessons with whether or not the pupils will find them fun in mind and I am frequently mystified when pupils say my lesson was fun.

If most of my pupils do what I ask them to do and learn what I wish them to learn most of the time are my lessons engaging? My pupils are generally engaged. I can say that with certainty. Does that mean the lessons are engaging?

I ask because historically during observation feedback when people have used the word engaging they have almost invariably meant entertaining. This has occurred most frequently in schools with appalling behavior, the implication being that sacrificing rigor for entertainment will improve the behavior and thus the learning. I would regularly be told that the activities and style of lesson I was doing would work better in a school in a leafy suburb or a school with “nice middle class kids” but not here. The observer would often readily admit that pupils would learn more in my type of lesson if they listened and behaved than the one they were advocating if they listened and behaved but didn’t see that as an argument for making them behave.

I always felt this was putting the cart before the horse. This is giving up on managing behavior, admitting defeat and ruling out teaching in certain ways because of behavior. It’s wrong on so many levels I could write a separate blogpost on it. If the behavior is right then the type of lesson is far less important. If pupils won’t behave for certain types of lesson then it’s our job to change that not to give up in the face of such adversity.

I made the difficult decision as a relatively inexperienced teacher that I was going to take on the poor behavior head on with or without support rather than teach in a way I perceived as worse than what I was doing. It took a while but I got there in the end (with a lot of criticism and little support along the way). Interestingly even when things got better and though my results were average for the department (or better) I came in for constant criticism for lessons not being engaging. I got far more criticism than people whose classes were getting far worse results.

On the advice of one observer I went to observe someone who was “good at engaging pupils”. What was very noticeable about the lesson I observed was that while there was a lot of activity, a lot of pupils “doing stuff” and many pupils were working ok some of the pupil behavior was appalling, the teacher seemed to ignore much of the poor behavior (or didn’t notice it) including one pupil hurling scissors at another and I found it very difficult to pinpoint what pupils had actually learned.

The pupils clearly enjoyed the tasks they were given but spent as much time off task chatting, messing about and wandering the room as they did doing the tasks. In one of my lessons those tasks would have probably taken less time and I believe the pupils would have done more work, learned more and behaved far better. They would have had less fun though, the pupil voice would have been worse and therein lies the issue…


11 thoughts on “Must lessons be entertaining to be engaging?

  1. Teachling

    Great post. So my question is (and a question we’ve been trying to answer at school, to no result as yet) what does an ‘engaged’ student ‘look like’? In the past teachers have confused ‘compliance’ with engagement- a child working hard in silence. But on the flip side, the ‘rowdiness’ you observed doesn’t equal engagement either. And again, we can’t always take what the kids say because they might be making judgements based on level on challenge/ease. Any ideas how you’d define an engaged student? Teachling

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      I think if a teacher sets a reasonable minimum expectation with respect to the amount of work students should do then if a student does more than the minimum without prompting then that student can be said to be engaged. The minimum expectation needs differentiation of course.

      A pupil that does less than the minimum either doesn’t understand the work or isn’t engaged. A pupil that does the minimum and no more probably isn’t engaged if the teacher has judged the minimum expectation right.

      I would probably triangulate amount of work done in lesson compared to the minimum with progress and pupil voice.

      It’s also worth looking at pupils books. When work is diagnostically marked and pupils are given time to respond to feedback an engaged student will respond actively. It will be noticeable that they write a response to the feedback and attempt to take it on board.

      A disengaged student will not do so tot he same extent.

      What makes it difficult is that sometimes whether a student was engaged or not can only be seen retrospectively in my opinion.

  2. Pingback: The Reading List: posts and links that have interesetd and helped us this week | prawnseyeblog

  3. lordlumey

    Regarding this:

    “If most of my pupils do what I ask them to do and learn what I wish them to learn most of the time are my lessons engaging? My pupils are generally engaged. I can say that with certainty. Does that mean the lessons are engaging?”

    I think so, yes. Naturally, the devil is in the definition, but I’d argue if they’ve learnt what they need to learn, it follows they must have been engaged. If they were engaged, the lesson must have been engaging.

    I think the difficulty sometimes falls in the extent to which children who are reluctant to learn should be engaged by the teacher and when they should take some responsibility for their own learning.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      I agree completely. Also whether pupils who refuse to work or take responsibility for their learning should be allowed to fail is an important question.

  4. Pingback: On engagement (again) | mylifeasacynicalteacher

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      Hi Chris,

      I read your blog and I thought it was very interesting and well written. I agree with the premise of your blog and I like the stages as you have outlined them. If there is an omission then it is perhaps around how much difference success makes to pupil engagement and the development of pupils towards the last stage. The success could be, but is not restricted to, success in tests or assessments. I’m more talking about feeling smart, feeling like improvement is happening etc. This is essential if pupils are to get to stage 3-4 and is what I generally start with no matter what I am teaching.

      Making sure pupils feel like they are getting smarter, making sure that pupils are able to feel successful without patronising them by giving them work that is obviously too easy is a difficult tightrope to walk.

      1. chrismwparsons

        Thank you so much for taking the time to read it!

        I think you’re absolutely spot-on with regard to what you are saying. One of the things which struck me almost as soon as I’d put the posts together was the need to create some kind of ‘movement’ or progression through the levels. One thing which I think I probably underplayed was the absolute need to use some of the lower level techniques to get children on board at key stages of the learning process, but your point about the role of success in that is absolutely vital. I can see this as working for the purposes of building self-efficacy, so that they feel more inclined to have a crack at challenges, but also, I think, for them just to get a taste for how good it feels to succeed at understanding something new. If possible then, for them to get a tangible feel for how having mastered a difficult learning challenge leaves a trace of feeling oneself ‘different’ some how – a bit bigger and more capable.

        I’ve observed this in myself recently. Starting blogging has coincided with a newly concerted push to develop mastery in myself, and I can literally feel the difference in my mind for a while when the dust settles after a particularly determined effort to nail an area in my head. I like the feeling and it is addictive! Unfortunately I don’t recall particularly ever feeling it at school – but I was very much a back-seat passenger in my education until after A levels.

        Thanks again 🙂

  5. Pingback: 12 Blogposts About Engagement | Scenes From The Battleground

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