Teacher & Student Engagement:
The Agency Gap is an Inequity

Hello and welcome.

Let’s talk about teacher and student engagement.

This is an important topic because there is a tendency for us to be deceived by our intuitions about it.

As educators or leaders we look out on the folks we are attempting to engage with and we presume that we can accurately gauge the impact we are having. 

I want to defer to one of my all time favorite songs to share with you the critical psychological insight that should guide our efforts at gauging our impact.

Unscientific Engagement Suggestions Collection (4pg PDF)

Musical Insight into Psychology

[[1:08 of You Don't Know My Mind performed by Guy Davis from the Putamayo album: Mali to Memphis]]

  You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know my mind, 

  you hear me talkin’ but you don’t know, you don’t know my mind 

  and if you hear me laughin’, yes I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’. 

  If a smilin’ face is what you see, 

  you can’t tell what may be worryin’ me 

  you don’t know my mind 

  and if you hear me laughin’, well I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’.

Don: That was an excerpt of Guy Davis performing You Don’t Know My Mind which I found on the Putamayo album Mali to Memphis, but which is also the title track from one of his albums. 

The title of the song summarizes the point I want to make. 

Just because you will observe some outward expression that you will automatically interpret to be an indicator of some particular emotion or attitude that that person seems to have, that does not mean that you got it right. 

If a smiling face is what YOU SEE, 

YOU CANNOT TELL what may be worrying me, 

and IF YOU HEAR me laughing, 

well, I’m laughing just to keep from crying, 

you do not know my mind.

This is why we need a science to help us get more accurate means of understanding what engagement is and how it actually works.

Engagement definitions, models, and suggestions that are unscientific have a seductive allure because they are not too far from the scientific truth. 

However, models and suggestions that fail to tap into the causal forces for deeper learning are wasting your time and effort. 

Only when the scientific truth is properly taken into account will you be enabled to do your best for your teachers and students. 

To make matters worse, even the science-based offerings in the education literature tend to be a decade or more out of date. 

The Science (and Non-Science) of Student Engagement

My name is Don Berg. 

I am a member of the community of psychologists that studies engagement scientifically. 

My definitions, models, and suggestions are all derived from Self-Determination Theory, the framework with the widest scientific support for understanding human motivation and engagement. 

Teacher and student engagement has been studied for many decades and SDT provides the most robust and well-supported model of engagement.

According to SDT, there are four components of engagement, although you might see a lot of educational publications referring to only three. 

That is, when they are not pulling random advice out of their ass that has no scientific basis whatsoever. 

On a lark I compiled a list of about a hundred classroom and school engagement recommendations from the internet that seem to have nothing to do with the science, despite randomly using a few terms that might be the same, or similar to, words used by engagement scientists. 

On my webpage for this video at Holistic-EquityDOTorg there is a four page PDF file you can download to see what I came up with.

The intuitive notions are not completely wrong nor stupid, BUT you are likely to be sent on a wild goose chase because you will inevitably apply your own intuitions and experiences to interpreting what they say. 

You will use the same mental process to interpret the scientific words, too.

But the difference is that the science can reliably guide you from your initial misinterpretations towards a more accurate understanding of the reality of engagement because the scientific community has spent decades destroying bad ideas about engagement. 

Behavioral Engagement

So here’s the real deal.

First, there is the obvious external indicators of engagement that we all agree exist: behavioral engagement.

When the song talks about “hearing the talking” and “seeing the laughing” those are indicators of behavioral engagement.

In the classroom this is usually compliance with the instructional program.

As teachers and leaders, when we look out on our audience to see them smiling away at us and doing what we told them to do, we conclude that they are engaged.

But remember what the song is really about. 

Just because you see and hear me that does not mean that you know what is in my mind. 

Emotional Engagement

That brings me to the second component: emotional engagement.

To be emotionally engaged you must experience positive emotions while enacting the activity.

Experiencing boredom, anxiety, or other forms of psychological negativity means that you are emotionally disengaged from the activity. 

If you are laughing just to keep from crying, that does not suggest to me that the internal experience behind that outward laughter is actually positive.

Even if you go through the motions and might put on a good face, if the inward emotions are not positive then regardless of the outward expressions you produce you have not achieved emotional engagement.

Cognitive Engagement

Speaking of going through the motions, the third component is cognitive engagement.

If I use the very simplest strategies for learning, then I am not cognitively engaged.

Cognitive engagement means deploying more sophisticated cognitive strategies for managing the situation. 

For instance, simple rote memorization is an indicator of cognitive disengagement because it is one of the simplest ways to memorize .

More sophisticated tactics likes making memory palaces or finding multiple sources that present the same information in different ways to synthesize disparate perspectives are examples of cognitive engagement.

So far, we have reviewed the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive components of engagement.

In the few educational resources on engagement that rely on the science, that is often all you will find.

The Agency Gap & Agentic Engagement

This is what I call the agency gap. 

The fourth component was first proposed in 2011 by John Marshall Reeve and Ching-Mei Tseng in the journal, Contemporary Educational Psychology.

Since then Reeve and many other researchers have done extensive follow-up studies to verify that their proposed addition to the engagement model is sound.

But the education world seems to take about ten years to catch up to the psychological research. 

That addition is a component called agentic engagement.

Agentic engagement is different from the other components because it is not solely a trait of the student.

Agentic engagement indicates how the student puts into the learning environment their own ideas, identities, opinions, and preferences in order to improve the educational value of that environment. 

It is a social phenomena, not merely a personal one. 

Agentic disengagement occurs when hostile social forces devalue or even ridicule the contributions of the student, such that the student withdraws from contributing. 

You become agentically disengaged when you go along with the program, but without actively contributing your self to the social milieu in which you are attempting to learn. 

Inequity in the Song

Let’s listen to the song again.

[[1:08 of You Don't Know My Mind performed by Guy Davis from the Putamayo album: Mali to Memphis]]

  You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know my mind, 

  you hear me talkin’ but you don’t know, you don’t know my mind 

  and if you hear me laughin’, yes I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’. 

  If a smilin’ face is what you see, 

  you can’t tell what may be worryin’ me 

  you don’t know my mind 

  and if you hear me laughin’, well I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’.

Don: Let’s take a moment to reconsider what the songwriter means by the line “and if you hear me laughin’, well I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’”

Our intuitions about what a laugh normally means suggests that we would automatically interpret laughter to indicate happiness and joy, in other words positive feeling and agentic engagement with the situation. 

The person laughing is injecting something into the situation. 

They are taking an agentic risk by exposing an emotion.

In this case the risk comes from the fact that their actual experience is that of a very sad situation.

The sadness underlying the laughter is creating emotional complexity which might get completely misinterpreted by being reduced to the assumption that laughter only indicates happiness, instead of something much more difficult to deal with.

This song comes out of the Blues tradition. 

The next verse deals with the effects of Sunset Laws which made it illegal for Black folks to be out after sunset. 

Black folks subjected to such unjust laws were forced to deal with the powerful agents of that racism, usually the local sheriff.

They were forced into a position of relative powerlessness. 

One of the ways they coped with this kind of inequity was effectively hiding their true selves in the cloak of predictable emotional misinterpretation by the White folks. 

Collectively, they learned that White folks have systematic intuitive reactions to their emotional expressions. 

White folks automatically oversimplified the emotional lives of Black people.

That pattern enabled the Black folks to express themselves to each other in sophisticated ways that usually escaped the notice of their racist oppressors.

The Equity Angle on Student Engagement 

This is exactly what many relatively powerless students also learn to do with the powerful agents of academic schooling.

They generally hide themselves in plain sight by going through the motions externally and keeping their inner lives locked away.

This is why engagement is an equity issue. 

The pervasive patterns of disengagement that have been amply documented as plaguing our schools and workplaces is a sign of massive inequities that have nothing to do with any particular outcomes.

When equity is properly defined with reference to needs, which you can learn about in my videos on Equity versus Equality or Achieving Equity in Schools, then it does not matter what the pattern of any other outcomes are, when needs are systematically thwarted then inequity is present regardless of outcomes. 

We need to have a proper scientific understanding of engagement in order to know how to properly assess engagement in others.

If we discover that there is an unacceptable level of disengagement, the science then provides us with precise means of responding. 

It is not enough to observe from the outside. 

We need to ask about how students and teachers are experiencing the environments that we are co-creating with them. 

We need to find out about their emotional, cognitive, and agentic lives, not just observe and manipulate their behavior.

A great big thank you, to not only Guy Davis, but all the Black folks who were forced to live for generations in blatantly racist cultures and gave us a song that so gracefully points out this important psychological insight.

If we take the time to learn from their tragic experiences, with the added help of science, we will be able to co-create the kinds of deeper learning environments that we aspire to in schools. 

Thanks for watching.

To learn the difference between equity and equality click here.

For more information visit HolisticEquity.org.

This article was printed from HolisticEquity.com

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