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The Narwhal of Education

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Originally published September 21, 2018

It has been a while since I last posted anything. That's because I've was working on my book. It's still not finished, but I hammered out so much in the winter and spring. Then, the better weather came and I set my book aside so I could begin running again. Little did I know that the good weather would turn into unbearably hot weather that I wouldn't/shouldn't/couldn't run in.

On top of all of that, with my book, I realized that I hit a small wall. I wasn't writer's block, per se, but something else. I questioned the practicality of my ideas.


To recap, the premise of the book is that in the field of education we use the term "engagement" a lot, however, two people can walk into a classroom and observe the same lesson. One person can walk out saying "Those students were engaged" and the other person can walk out saying "Those students were not engaged." How can that be? They saw the same lesson at the same time. The problem is not with their eyes, it's with their vocabulary. Though we use the term engagement all the time, we do not have agreement about what we mean and that is where my book comes in. The purpose of the book is to create a consistent understanding about what engagement is, and just as importantly, what it is not.

I don't want to give too much away in this post because that's not really what I'm trying to get at today, but I've identified and clarified four levels of engagement ranging from the most disengaged to the most engaged. When the weather changed from winter to spring, I was in the section of the book devoted to the highest level of engagement, or what I call, "absorbed." The book is broken up into sections that explain each level, discuss why that level is important, and then give some suggestions on how educators can apply this information with students.


So here's the problem that I encountered...engagement, at the highest level, creates student-driven environments where students initiate the learning and are intrinsically compelled to learn. They want to keep at it after the bell rings. After the lesson is over. After the unit is done.

Unfortunately, this is like the narwhal of our field. In case you don't know what a narwhal is, let me explain it to you. Narwhals are a horned whale that looks like a dolphin and a unicorn had a baby. If you have ever seen the Will Farrell movie, Elf, it's the animal that Buddy talks to when he sets off to find his dad.

Unlike unicorns, narwhals are real animals that exist, but, at the same time, they are really hard to find. Engagement at the highest level, like I have described it above, is like that. It does exist, but many people have never seen it and some don't even believe it's a thing because they can't even imagine it.

I recently read the book Unstuck: How Curiosity, Peer Coaching, and Teaming Can Change Your School by Bryan Goodwin, Tonia Gibson, Dale Lewis, and Kris Rouleau (the title does a poor job of conveying the ideas within the book in my opinion). One of the major points in this book that struck me was the notion of fostering curiosity. Unlike "engagement," curiosity is not a word that I commonly hear tossed around in education, yet curiosity is at the root of learning. In fact, Unstuck devotes an entire chapter to the role of curiosity in learning.

But, I digress. In Unstuck, the authors make a case as to why our "tried and true" methods of school improvement might be better categorized as "tried and failed." Perhaps this is because, "In education, the breakdown often falls somewhere between good intentions and good execution" (p. 85). Moreover, the lack of good execution is probably attributable to the reality that in education we so often move forward with ideas by "do[ing] on a grand scale what we have no idea how to do on a small scale (Charles Payne, 2008, So Much Reform, So Little Change, p. 169). When I read that line I thought, "Uh oh! Is that what I am including in my book?!"

So, I'm gearing up to get back to my book. But I'm challenged because there are plenty of people who have great ideas about the importance of engagement, curiosity, and creating classrooms where students are compelled to learn. Unfortunately, it's so rare that to write about how to do it is so much harder than I thought. Wish me luck and please send me your examples of how you create classrooms where students are compelled to learn!


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