Published on 2012/02/23
Bringing Out The Learner In You
A truly innovative instructor can allow learners' interest in the material to blossom. Photo by Sarah Korf.

Have you ever sat through a class and were bored to tears, or found it so dreadfully heavy that you tuned off?  How about one, where you sat through it because you had to, on the way to picking up a qualification of some sort. Or have you have ever been to a class where you sat on the edge of the seat for the whole time and left the class feeling invigorated, empowered and wanting to learn more? Unfortunately, the latter happens only too rarely.

The standout classes will only happen when teachers set out to engage the learners in the subject matter. The initial desire to learn that learners bring can soon evaporate if the delivery is not engaging.  Of course there are a few people who can learn with even the most dreadfully boring or difficult content – but they are not many of these people around.  They are able to learn because their drive is so strong that they are willing to compensate for the delivery and do what is necessary inside and outside of the class.

So how does learner engagement happen?  First and foremost it is necessary to understand that engagement is a feeling. It can come in response to a presentation that we feel in some way attracted to. Sometimes this can happen by accident but to have it maintained over a longer period of time in a class(es), it takes an educator who has worked at making their classes engaging. This doesn’t happen by chance; it happens because the teacher has consciously decided to cultivate that ability. This requires teachers to develop a thorough understanding of the subject matter, a keen sensitivity towards people as well as themselves.

By teachers watching themselves at the same time as watching the impact of what they do on their audience, they can learn to recognize what kind of activities engage (and what do the opposite!) as well as educate.  Without giving that quality of attention, there is no chance for teachers to see whether what is being delivered is having the desired impact.

“Interesting” content is one aspect to learner engagement, but of itself, interesting soon becomes too difficult to maintain. Learner engagement requires active involvement by learners, not just passive listening.  For this to happen, it is important to separate what needs to be given to the learners and what they can be asked to discover for themselves. Teachers need to give to the learners what they can’t reasonably be expected to discover for themselves without a lot of work and research. This needs to be done in a way that inspires and lifts the audience so that when challenges are presented, they rise to the occasion not because they have to but because they want to.

Teachers need to understand what are the essential items they need to provide and then the skill to know what they can create by themselves. If teachers continue to give to their classes what they can easily enough discover for themselves, they are in fact disempowering them and ultimately the learners will disengage. Learners are engaged when they feel challenged and feel they can do something with what is before them. This is one reason why computer games can be so addictive. Nothing engages people so much as a challenge at the level in which they feel they can participate.

The feelings provide us the energy for us to be involved. It is our intellect and or our physical body that we employ to follow up on what attracts us. We find our interests with our feelings and then we put our intellect or body to work.  We can of course involve ourselves in activities that we are not attracted to by being coerced or bribed in some way (eg. “do this or you will fail”, or “do this and I will give you an award”).  Sometimes we act on our beliefs, which for one reason or the other may be contrary to what attracts us.  So we may believe we need to do a course for some reason or other, rather than trust our feelings about whether it is pulling us towards it.  Alternatively, emotions like fear, jealousy, anger etc can also derail us from following what is best for us.

Teachers cannot control their students interests but they can cultivate an environment where the students who are drawn to the subject matter will not only want to pay attention but through their participation in the class and course they will feel increasingly able to do more than what they ever thought possible.

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Readers Comments

Chelsea Bellows 2012/02/23 at 11:52 am

This sounds like a really tough thing to accomplish… how can you create a lesson plan that appeals on a wide level enough to re-use while constantly chiseling it to appeal to small groups?

Andrew Weiler 2012/02/24 at 7:05 am

I will readily admit Chelsea that my classes were anything like what I talk about for years. Like any finely developed skill, this can take years to develop ( it certainly took me that time- might take you less! 🙂 But with the right intention, an open mind and open heart and some diligence it’s amazing what one can accomplish.

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