Engagement Questions: A (Not-All-That-Fictional) Case Study From the Cutting Room Floor

At the researchED conference in early May, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Daisy Christodoulou and seeing her speak. I am a great admirer of her ideas on instruction, and I go back to her fine book Seven Myths About Education (it’s permanently loaded to my phone, actually) and her blog, The Wing to Heaven, on a regular basis.

In her researchED presentation, Daisy spent a good amount of time discussing one of my pet instructional peeves: designing learning activities that, in efforts to make sure students are amply engaged, ultimately obscure — or miss altogether — original academic targets. To illustrate, she shared examples she’d observed in practice: puppet-making activities to understand Shakespeare text, for example, cookie-baking to understand the Underground Railroad, and so on. Her ultimate message/recommendation around this idea (summarily: ‘Review every lesson in terms of what the students will be thinking about’) was an elegant re-packaging of themes from Dan Willingham in Why Don’t Students Like School.

Like Daisy, I’ve observed — and, accordingly, had to challenge many practitioners on — this habit of practice over and over in the field. It’s such a common (and negatively impactful) flaw, in fact, that I built it into my book‘s larger argument: chapter four (titled ‘A Meaningless Engagement’) is dedicated to examining where this flaw originates, what it looks like in practice, and why we must practice the cares Daisy raised in her researchED talk and other works.

If you’re curious about what such flawed practices look like (with a built-in nod to the importance of background knowledge in constructing new understandings), below is a vignette I ended up leaving out of Education Is Upside-Down for space and tone reasons. If you decide to read through it, feel free to use it as a lens on the learning activities you design for students, that you observe at work in your/your kids’ school, etc. Here are some possible points for consideration:

  • How frequently do you see these types of activities/assignments?
  • Do such activities help kids walk away with content understanding, something else entirely, or a mix?
  • Based on your answer to the above question: What, in your view, should kids be learning in this situation/grade level/discipline? Why?
  • Could this teacher have done things differently to both make the learning task engaging and ensure that kids attain confirmed content understanding? If answering yes, give examples.

A (Not-All-That-Fictional) Case Study: Sylvia’s President Poster

Close to Presidents’ Day, third-grade Sylvia is assigned a project to produce an informational poster or board game about a U.S. president. All members of her class’s work will be put together into a Walk of Presidents event in time for the national holiday.

The project begins with students in Sylvia’s class drawing names of U.S. presidents from their teacher’s stovepipe hat — a fashion, she explains, famously associated with Abraham Lincoln, the U.S.’s sixteenth president. (Sylvia, by the way, draws President Richard Nixon.) Guidelines, deadlines, and scoring rubrics are distributed, and the teacher explains project expectations:

  • The poster/game they create around their selected president must include basic biographical details, career highlights before being elected president, initiatives/events historically associated with his presidency, and a few “fun facts”.
  • Some visual and general presentation-enhancing criteria will be assessed as well, so students will be expected to include interesting and relevant images, varied colors and textures, and layouts that enable smooth consumption of information.
  • The project will be due in four weeks, and no class time will be dedicated to its completion. All project-related tasks are to be completed at students’ homes.

When Sylvia brings the assignment home and shares it with her parents, the three of them decide that preparing a poster is the best option. They then draw a rough plan of execution: to begin, they will visit their public library over the coming weekend to check out resource materials; a trip to an office-supply outlet will be made the following weekend, after the necessary information about President Nixon has been gathered; Sylvia’s mother will help with images, which she plans to acquire using the Internet and print with the family’s color printer.  If everything goes to plan, all necessary steps should be executed in plenty of time to assemble the most information-rich, attractive, and rubric-satisfying poster possible.

At the library, Sylvia’s father browses the reference shelves of the Young Readers section with his daughter to find resources for her research. Hoping to optimize her personal expertise on the life and career of Nixon, he selects three Nixon-related texts of appropriate audience. Though he knows it’d be easier for Sylvia if he compiled the required information for her, his belief in the potential of the exercise to increase her understanding of the presidential office motivates him to make her an active participant in its fact-finding phase.

Before sitting with Sylvia to discuss the career of Nixon, Sylvia’s father spends 15-20 minutes scanning the reference texts they’ve acquired to provide some structure for her task. As he works through Nixon’s journey toward and through the American Presidency (which ran from a pre-political stint practicing law to serving legislative terms in both houses of Congress to holding the office of Vice President to losing a presidential election to winning two others, all in addition to navigating through several key American- and world-historical episodes, office-revolutionizing political scandals, and the presidential-first resignation of office), he thinks to himself how fortunate, in a way, his daughter is to have randomly drawn this president. Indeed, compiling interesting information appears to be of little concern.

After having become more familiar with Nixon’s career arc and the layout/sequencing of the reference texts, Sylvia’s father asks his daughter to join him in discussing her assigned subject. Opening the first resource, he explains that President Nixon is in fact a lucky choice — that, as they may actually have too much information to possibly include on a sheet of posterboard, their largest challenge will be to select the most crucial career highlights.

“Let’s start with his career before he was president, Syl,” the father says.  “He began as a lawyer.  Do you know what that is?”

“Yeah.  Isn’t Uncle Keith a lawyer?  What is that, anyway?”

“It’s a person who knows our nation’s, state’s, and city’s laws very well, and who makes sure laws work like they’re supposed to for the people.”

“So…Uncle Keith’s a policeman?”

“No, not really.  He makes sure that laws work in a courtroom, with a judge. You know what that is, right? Well, he and judges discuss what they believe laws really mean, then decide who is right according to their discussion. It’s kind of like when mom and I settle arguments between you and your sister.  Does that make sense?”

“Kinda,” Sylvia replies. “So President Nixon started by doing that?  Being like Uncle Keith?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Then someone just made him be President?”

“Well, not exactly,” says Sylvia’s father, musingly. “This is where he gets really interesting, though.  To get to be President, he was approached by some people who thought he might make a good leader. Then he built on what he knew about laws to make a career in politics.”

Politics? What’s that?”

“Um…right. What is politics…”

Right about here, Sylvia’s father begins to realize just how difficult his idealistic plan — of making his daughter an active participant in the information-gathering phase of the President Poster assignment — will be to carry out. If he’d had to explain what a lawyer was, after all, he figures that it probably doesn’t mean much to Sylvia that Nixon once was one (except, of course, for in how she now knows that Richard Nixon once did the same job her Uncle Keith does). Similarly, if she’s never heard the word “politics”, he doubts that it’ll mean much to her that Nixon made such an impressive climb through the American political ranks, or that she’d stand a chance of knowing about the two houses of the U.S. Congress Nixon served in and the function they perform within America’s three-branched political framework. To his credit, though, he does a quick check to be sure:

“So…have you ever talked about Congress in class?” he asks.

“About what?  What’s that word mean?”

“Never mind for now. The Senate?  House of Representatives?  Either of those?  How about the legislative branch?”

“Nope.  Do they have something to do with Richard Nixon?”

“Kinda. Yeah. Yeah, kinda, they do.”

And so is the plug officially pulled on Sylvia’s dad’s plan. Without more knowledge about how the American system of government works, many of the most notable pieces of Nixon’s career simply won’t contain much significance for his daughter. Though he still believes such knowledge is good for her to have and that the President Poster assignment provides a clear opportunity and context within which to acquire it, he also realizes that time is a concern. To keep everything on track toward completion, he knows there is likely not enough time to properly construct all the background knowledge necessary to make Sylvia a presidential scholar of the first order among her classmates.

The resource texts and topic of Nixon still open, then, Sylvia’s dad improvises. He tells her they’ll just find some bullet points about Nixon’s life, career, and presidency — seven or eight of each should do it, he says — and select the best ones to include for the poster. He instructs her to create headings on her paper (corresponding with each of her teacher’s rubric-specified criteria) before effectively taking over the task of fact-gathering. He proceeds to navigate the text, having Sylvia record a few words for each of the highlights he selects under the appropriate headings. Though she asks occasional questions about the items he suggests, Sylvia’s dad keeps his answers short in the interest of time, essentially surrendering any attempt to build his daughter’s best-possible understanding of government or the presidency. Simply, he’s realized that it’s not worth the time and effort: for without some basic foundational blocks of information to build upon, any and all Nixon-specific information that could be piled onto Sylvia is doomed to tumble off. Sylvia’s dad gets a humorous — if in-reverse — illustration of this reality about 30 minutes into their research effort, when Sylvia, following the text her father’s referencing, suddenly exclaims and points to the page currently open.

“The president knew Elvis?!” she shouts, incredulous.

Looking at the photo Sylvia’s pointing to (of Nixon’s unlikely, trivial Oval Office meeting with Elvis Presley from December 1970), her father sighs.

“Yes, honey. Isn’t it funny how the new things you learn about President Nixon really mean something when they build onto things you already know about?”

“Can we put that picture in the poster? That is so cool!”

“Of course, Syl. It’s a perfect ‘fun fact’. Good job.”

Once their lists of informational bullets are complete, Sylvia works with her mother on the more art-intensive parts of the project.  They use the internet to find relevant illustrations for the gathered information (e.g., Nixon with Checkers the dog, Nixon displaying dual victory signs from the door of a helicopter, the aforementioned — and crucial — handshake with Elvis, etc.) and lay them out on the large sheet of posterboard in various configurations before deciding on the most pleasing design. After deciding on an effective layout and fastening the images with glue stick, Sylvia carefully copies in the information bullets around the visuals. Nixon’s landmark diplomacy with China, failed 1962 gubernatorial run, and abolition of the gold standard are, alas, left on the editing floor in the name of smooth consumption.  Category headings are then written in larger script and punched up visually with red, silver, and blue glitter.

In the end, Sylvia’s poster on Richard Nixon meets all the criteria asked for in her teacher’s scoring rubric, and she is awarded a perfect 50 of 50 possible points.

* * *

On President’s Day, Sylvia’s dad joins his daughter through her class’s Walk of Presidents. He asks Sylvia questions about her fellow classmates’ work as he views them to get a gauge of how much Sylvia’s taken away from the exposition phase of the exercise. On the way home, Sylvia’s father turns his attention to Sylvia’s product.

“So are you happy with how it turned out, Syl?” he asks.

“Yeah. I wish I would’ve done a board game, though,” she says. “Those are the ones kids looked at most when we shared.”

“Maybe next time, honey,” her dad replies, smiling. “Yours sure had a lot of good information on Nixon, though.  I bet your class learned a lot from it.”

“Mm hmm.”

Sensing some misgiving, Sylvia’s father presses. “Aren’t you glad about all you learned?”

“Well, yeah. Sure,” she replies.

“Okay, then tell me something big you know after all this.  Go on.”

“…”

“Syl? Come on, honey. What do you know now that you didn’t before?” he urges.

“Well…,” Sylvia says, searching. “I know that…silver glitter definitely sticks better than red glitter.  That’s for sure.”

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