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Authentic Engagement


I want to show you a couple videos this week that have to do with absorption. This first video is of my daughter, Lilia, from 2016 when she was almost eight. I’m not sure why, but she told me that she wanted to play the piano. Since pianos are not cheap, let alone the lessons, I decided to record her so that when she later wanted to quit the piano or slacked with practicing, I would be able to show her this video where she would hear herself talking about her desire to play and her commitment to practice. Based on this video, you might suspect that Lilia went from being a novice (someone who is very intrigued with a task) to an enthusiast (someone whose identity changes as a result of the task—I not only play the piano, I am a pianist). The thing about being a novice is that there are actually two directions that you can go on The Engagement Continuum: up or down. Though Lilia still plays the piano and has weekly lessons, I would not say that she is absorbed in the piano and this lack of engagement happened quickly. In fact, there was a time when the only way I could get her to practice was to record her performing and upload it to YouTube since Lilia at that time was enamored with the idea of becoming famous (here’s an example of one of those videos in case you’re curious).

This next video is of my son, Oliver, when he was four (watch this video with the closed captions on because Oliver can be a little difficult to hear/understand). My husband took the video and what I’m sharing with you is actually a cropped version because the initial one was rather long. In this video, you see Oliver playing a video game on a Nintendo DS. What I love about the video is that you can see Oliver repeatedly fail and start again. Sure he is challenged, but he is comfortable with failure and willing to try again and again. I love that it is clear that he is frustrated but also clear that he believes he will be successful. In my book I write:

The video begins when, at four seconds in, Oliver “dies,” and he screams, “No! No! Nooooo! Ahhhhhhh!!” The disappointment is immediately followed by returning to the game to start the process all over again. At about seventeen seconds, he exclaims, “I know. I get it. I get it! I know how. I get it! I know how! I get it! I get it! I know what to do now!” Several seconds pass, and he proudly states, “I did it!” After several more seconds, he dies again and says, “No! No! NO!!!!!” and then throws himself face down on the couch crying and slamming his fist into the cushion. He then immediately picks up the DS and starts playing again. The video ends here with Oliver repeating this cycle all over again. In fact, as I was writing this when Oliver was seven, he was ironically playing the game at a higher level (of course) and negotiating with his dad so that he could continue playing even though it was his bedtime.
I wish that I could take credit for Oliver’s determination to persevere as though this was something that I instilled in him, but that would be a lie. Oliver’s grit regarding this game (or any other) has nothing to do with some explicit expectations from my husband or me about not giving up. There are plenty of things in his life that we have wanted him to persevere in that he was more than willing to abandon. His persistence with this game had everything to do with the way that video games are structured. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 169)

By the way, even if you’re not a gamer, who can’t relate to the feelings of frustration and elation that happen when you’re trying to do something that’s challenging and toggling between success and struggle? These feelings are healthy and are the ones that help us grow. Yet, so often in classrooms when things get hard, we dial back the challenge or we step in and rescue students.

If we think about video games for just a minute, let’s think about how they are designed.

Video games are designed to work within one’s Zone of Proximal Development. The first level is often very easy, so you can see the basics of what you will need to do. Then, the game really starts. With that, you will almost certainly lose a few times before you progress to the next level. However, when you lose, you realize something about the game, and that fuels your desire to apply that learning immediately. It is that feedback loop of failure and learning that we find absorbing. We do not want to give up because we feel like we are just about to do what we haven’t been able to do yet. As we are learning what will make us successful at this level, we are also being primed for skills that will be needed at the next level so that when we “level-up,” we are sufficiently able to enter that level but insufficiently prepared to master that level. Indeed, we would not want to play a game where we could breeze through the levels the first time we played it; that would be too easy, and we would give up. No adult would want to play an alphabet game, but neither would a child who already knew the alphabet. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 170)

This design is not about technology, but about creating a belief that challenge should be desired, failure is to be expected, and neither challenge nor failure should be avoided or shamed. As well, video games provide immediate feedback. Don’t go in that room or you will blow up. You have to run fast here or you’ll have to start over. Creating ways to provide more feedback and more challenge should be what we aim for in schools. Absorption is not to a thing, but a feeling; not a topic, but a connection. Let’s get kids connected to challenge! Here are just a few quick ideas on how to do that.

  1. Make learning authentic by providing a real problem or a real audience. It’s a lot easier to write a persuasive essay, for example, about a problem you really care about versus the same prompt that every other kid in the class has. This is actually the thought process I had behind posting Lilia’s videos on YouTube.

  2. Create a safe place to try (and fail) by highlighting the failures of successful people. That’s not hard to do since every successful person has some track record of failure—that’s how they learned what didn’t work! To do this, you can create “Failure Fridays” where you highlight that person OR you could on Failure Fridays have the students identify something they used to struggle with but have grown. This concept of safety is really about creating a culture where perfection is not the goal, learning is.

  3. Teach students to create goals so that they have investment in what (and why and how) they’re doing, rather than the score they get for doing the task. The goals can be related to what they’re learning, but they could also be personal. The point is to shift the focus from completion of the task to valuing the process required during the task.

So, there it is. We’ve taken the journey across The Engagement Continuum from non-compliant all the way through absorbed. If nothing else, I hope you walk away with the belief that there are actions we can take to help others make the journey and that engagement is possible in all classes for all students every day!


P.S. My Catch of the Week is for this uber-helpful extension called Tab Snooze that allows you to "snooze" a tab that you want to see again at another time. For example, there is a shared doc that I have to write in every week for work. I have set that tab to open once a week at a specific time so I never have to remember to open it or look for it. I have some notes that I want to review a couple of days before a meeting in a month and I have set that tab to open then. This has not only freed my brain from having to remember to open up different tabs, but has allowed me to finally close and manage my tabs in ways I never thought possible. I love it and I hope you check it out!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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