## Achieve better student engagement and learning

Colin Kluepic chats with Richard Andrew

updated 3rd September, 2017

Colin Kluepic chats with Richard Andrew

updated 3rd September, 2017

Achieving improved student engagement is easier said than done. In this chat Colin and I tease out some important keys to achieving student engagement.

The text below is an improved representation of the interview The podcast audio is also provided.

The text below is an improved representation of the interview The podcast audio is also provided.

the elephant in the classroom!

Colin: The discussions that we have had in the past seem to suggest that's the way the argument seems to be going, like if you have got students who are more engaged then they will want to be more at the centre of their learning. Or if you have got students that you are not spoon-feeding all of the time, they themselves will say, "All right. Well, I can spoon feed myself. Thanks very much. And therefore I will be the centre of my learning." Is that a safe logical deduction to make?

Richard: I don't think that's how it works. It is interesting, as I reflect, and I reflect a lot on my journey as a teacher and then as a professional learning coach if you like, the one thing I was always chasing was engagement. You know it is kind of interesting that if I didn't have the students fully on my side, I wasn't happy. And I had a lot of the years where I was frustrated. So, I was always looking for ways to engage and a lot of that was in the Maths sphere.

So in regard to engagement there is also - you know we talked about like in another podcast about how you are actually trying to teach or get concepts across rather than just drilling rote-learning - so, I was chasing engagement and at one point it was obvious that I need to switch from a lecture format, traditional kind of ‘teacher in control’ / teacher is the centre of all knowledge model to a student centred model. But the reason I made the change was because I knew that that was going to solve students management problems and also engagement problems.

Colin: If I can just briefly cut in there because you told me off mic in a previous discussion that you every early in your career where you came to that realisation about engagement but then, later on, you went to a conference where you were wondering "Am I the only person in the room who doesn't have classes of fully engaged learners?" Can you tell us about that experience?

Richard: Yeah. So, we were talking about the elephant in the room. I think there is an elephant in the room and it is called 'Lack of Student Engagement'. So I was at my first state Mathematics conference. Maths conferences might sound scary to people, especially, to teachers who are not mathematics teachers. But they have full of inspired people who have got lots of great ideas to share. And so I'm sitting in these sessions mostly run by teachers showing the latest ideas that they are using in their classrooms. And I am sitting there; because, I was in a new school and I was an experienced teacher. But you know it is like when you shift the schools - the first couple of years can be really tough; because you are trying to change the culture or you are developing a culture of learning in your classes and you have to get the kids on-side.

That was a point in time when I wasn't happy with where my students were at, in terms of being on the same page. They weren't engaged in the way that I was aiming for them to be. So I was sitting in these sessions at the mathematics conference thinking “This is fantastic but I can't implement these ideas yet because I haven't got my students engaged" And I go to another session, and I think “Wow, this is awesome. I’ll take notes here but I can't use this yet, because I don't have my students engaged.” And I'm thinking "Am I only the person in this whole conference that thinks like this, that doesn’t have his kids on-side?” These were all activities that will work fantastically when you have engaged students, but I didn't have my students engaged so I couldn't run any of these activities.

Colin: Did you get a chance to ask any other people there whether they had similar experiences to you?

Richard: No, of course not! (laughs), because I felt quite inferior being in these sessions and everyone else appeared to 'have their ship in order'! And so I had that classic sense of “There is an elephant in the room, and no-one is talking about it". As time went on I became quite confident that there was a great need (for such sessions) and I realised how weird it was - having all these highly skilled people at Mathematics conferences, running great sessions yet never talking about engagement - just assuming that the teachers in their sessions had engaged learners.

And so over a few years I began to deliver some (typical) sessions at conferences and then thought, “I’ll run a session on student engagement in Maths and see how it goes down.” And I have run a couple of those over the years and they have gone really well. And I tell that story (about “Am I the only one at conference sessions who doesn’t have all students engaged?” and there's a lot of head nodding going on in the room. So I realised "I am not alone. This is real! People do think about this. It is an issue but no one talks about it.” So at least I had a crack. I mean I don't think there are many such sessions run at these conferences! So, I just find it weird, because, if students aren't engaged you can't do anything other than standard, "Open your text to page 123, we will answer these next two pages of questions" and you have to ‘crack the whip’ to get the work out of them. And that has to be the most basic level of Maths teaching around, I think.

Colin: So, the issue that I find interesting as well is we like to talk about things like students centred learning but what if the student doesn't actually want to be at the centre of their learning?

Richard: Well, that's probably likely; because, don't forget we have already talked about this before. If you look at a toddler or a pre-schooler that child is fully engaged. You don't have to worry about engagement with toddlers. It doesn't matter what they are doing. They are into it. It seems that when institutionalised learning takes over - especially if it is very prescriptive and top-down - that tends to knock a lot of the engagement and enthusiasm out of children. They become ‘schoolees’ where they have to learn the system. Some of them become very good at earning ‘brownie points’ from their parents and teachers by gaining A’s and good marks. And that is the game they learn to play. Which is sad because education could be much more than that. (And of course many students don't learn the system and falsely learn that they are a poor learner, a failure).

Colin: Well let's park what we think the system gives us a successful model for a moment and ask what is then a definition of Student Centered Learning - what's your take on it?

Richard: Well this is a really good question because since doing the first podcast with you I have listened to few of the other podcasts (which were fantastic by the way). One of the problems about talking about these ideas is definitions because what one person's view of Student Centered Learning or being a facilitator is can be completely different to the views of others. For example, what I see as conceptual learning in a mathematics classroom can be a very different to what another sees. So I think we need to define some things.

And I realised, after listening to some of your guests that there is a prevailing view that if you are running a program which is more student centered - which means it gives students more freedom to explore things on their own or at their own pace or in their own way - then the teacher is a facilitator rather than a direct-instruction teacher. And the prevailing attitude seems to be that the facilitator role is quite passive. And when I heard this I was shocked because I have never ever viewed a student-centered approach as requiring a passive facilitation role from a teacher. In my experience, it is way more active, way harder - physically harder - to run a student-centered approach than it is a teacher-directed approach.

Colin: Why do you say that?

Richard: Well, before I answer that - my idea of (one form of) a student-centred approach is where you are delivering a unit of work to students - whether it be online or on a piece of paper - so that students have a lesson by lesson breakdown. There are strict guidelines as to what they need to achieve and by what date; they need to mark their own work and show second attempts for incorrectly answered questions and so on. So there are requirements built into the unit and what happens is the students have a choice in regard to the speed at which they progress through the unit. One consequence of this is ‘student spread’ and a lot of mathematics teachers are not too keen on students spread because it is something you have to be able to manage. But in my situation what that meant was rather than doing frequent whole-class 2-5 minute lectures (because, I am pretending that all of these students are at the same level, which they are not), a student-centered approach will mean that certain students reach certain spots in the unit at different times. And because within any mathematics unit you need to give certain instructions at specific points in the unit, I would be teaching that small, compacted bit of information to the first three or four students who reached one of these points. And then bit later another bunch of students would reach that point. And so I would say “Right, Bill has just asked me about (and I’d describe what it is) … Who else needs to hear this? If you do then raise your hands (5 hands go up). OK, so I’m taking to you 5! Watch here, the rest of you work on quietly.” And then I'd again deliver that 2-5 minute lecture, and again when another bunch of students arrived at that point. So that is what I call “A Mini Lesson".

And I just stumbled across this as a more efficient - actually a more effective - way of running a unit because this way results in students expressing little ‘needs to learn’ - they hit a 'road-block' and say “Mr A, can you show me how to do this …” So they are tangibly asking for my help rather than me deciding when they need to know what. The students are governing when I teach them what, much more so than for a traditional approach. This type of student centred approach is ‘chalk and cheese’ in regard to the engagement it produces!

So this is a highly scaffolded unit of work which is different because students can navigate through it much more in their own time. So it is more student-centered and much more engaging. But here’s the thing - my role is active. So, I am teaching things multiple times. It is really quite a busy lesson. It is far from a passive teaching role as I can imagine. So, I don't know what the word for that is - I always called that "Facilitation" but I am a bit loathed to use ‘facilitation' now - maybe I should call it ‘active facilitation’ because certain education ‘heavyweights’ have stated that the facilitator role is a passive one!

Colin: What sounds to me like you have got a highly structured and organised intent but the outworking of that intent tends to be quite messy. And perhaps that's another one of the sticking points.

Richard: Well, it looks messy but any teacher who go on this journey with me - and a lot do - realise this is a gradual process, and they start trialling some of these ideas and then say things like, "Oh I was bit worried because my class was a bit noisy but then I listened more closely and saw that the students were really into the lesson asking questions and working together. I thought 'this is great'. This is not like the normal noise that I am trying to squash. This is actually good noise. But I was a bit worried because the head of department might walk past and think I was having issues!” So yes, everyone does comment that it looks messy.

Any primary teacher who operates in this way - where they have 20 different things happening in the classroom at any one time and it looks like organised chaos but the teacher knows what each student is doing and the students are engaged.

Colin: Is it hard to assess?

Richard: No it is not; because my experience has been running these things with a Maths class. I also do run a course though for teachers (who don’t teach Maths) - Humanities, English, Music, etc. And this approach works for all of those areas. I think what I do is empower people who are already dabbling with this but the (Learn Implement Share programs) allows them to run with the ideas a little bit more and reassures them that what they were already attempting is actually a good thing.

Colin: Does assessment, in the end, look by and large the same? Do you have this highly scaffolded approach that then turns into an organised mess as you teach this spread and scope of students? But do you then come back and say "Okay guys now we are all going to do the same test"? Is that how it ends?

Richard: Yeah there is an end point. So obviously you need some really engaging activities, extension activities that students who complete early actually want to do. When I first introduced this system the learning culture in the school that I was in wasn’t great so it was difficult to get my students to see these extension activities as engaging. But a year on from that, the better students - or the fastest students - were really keen to get to end of the unit; because, they could have one or two lessons in this other kind of work that was still very high-level mathematics. They liked that it was more left of field and more interesting. And so everyone still finishes within a couple of lessons with each other. So you can still run your standard type of assessment task if you want to. What I am saying is this approach is simply a replacement for what I would call a conventional rules-based (procedural) approach.

And there is also the argument that we need need to give direct instruction in Mathematics because there’s certain information students have to know. And I agree. (Many commentators assume that student-centred means no direct instruction!!) But in this approach the direct instruction occurs in the mini lessons, where students have often specifically requested the information. What I am saying is that when you give your students choice in the way they go about progressing through the unit and you are not just saying "Right today you have to finish this …” so that some students might work less during a lesson and choose to do more at home, or vice versa (because, with this system, homework was built into each day’s work) the students become more engaged.

Colin: What about Student Centred assessment then? Can a student then decide as well have a choice about how they would like to be assessed? Can they come up with their own assessment task and show it to you?

Richard: Well, they could, and that's a beautiful idea. But, of course, that becomes problematic due to having to compare student’s results. One of the simplest and neatest assessment tasks which feature in a couple of the Learn Implement Share courses is the "I Can Do” assessment task. They are easy to run, and again this is most specific to Mathematics.

So if, for example, you are looking at Pythagoras Theorem, the standard kind of test would be a series of questions asking them to determine lengths of sides of right-angled triangles from diagram and (contrived) real-world situations.

But in an ‘I Can Do’ task, it is the students who make up the questions and answer them. For example, Question 1: “I can find the length of a short side in a right-angled triangle if I know the lengths of the other two sides”. And the student creates a question and answers it to demonstrate that they can indeed do this. Now the interesting thing with this is - when I was running these - I found there are certain students in my Maths class who I thought were kind of okay but they always bombed out in (standard) tests.

Colin: Right.

Richard: But they performed really well with the ‘I Can Do’ tests - the stress wasn’t there. They are more imaginative, more student centred. And where they had to draw diagrams I had these macho guys with birdies falling out of trees and other amusing scenarios and it caused me to laugh because they were so imaginative. The students enjoyed doing them. Importantly they were a much better predictor of what students actually understood! I think this is a good bridge between saying to the students "Make up your own assessment task” because the structure is there and from the rubric, they see up front what is worth 1 mark, what's worth 2 marks, what's worth 3 marks and so on. But it allows for a lot of a creativity. Interestingly it is the students who do not want to show working who do not fare so well and some of these are the so called 'brighter' (but lazy) students!

Colin: Sounds like a great concept Richard. Thanks so much for joining us.

Richard: It is always a pleasure Colin.

Colin: You have been listening to an episode of More To The Point. To find out more about my guest Richard Andrew visit

learnimplementshare.com - where you will find contact details and you can send him an email and he will respond.

I am Colin Kulpiec be sure to join me in the next time because there is also More to the Point.

Richard: I don't think that's how it works. It is interesting, as I reflect, and I reflect a lot on my journey as a teacher and then as a professional learning coach if you like, the one thing I was always chasing was engagement. You know it is kind of interesting that if I didn't have the students fully on my side, I wasn't happy. And I had a lot of the years where I was frustrated. So, I was always looking for ways to engage and a lot of that was in the Maths sphere.

So in regard to engagement there is also - you know we talked about like in another podcast about how you are actually trying to teach or get concepts across rather than just drilling rote-learning - so, I was chasing engagement and at one point it was obvious that I need to switch from a lecture format, traditional kind of ‘teacher in control’ / teacher is the centre of all knowledge model to a student centred model. But the reason I made the change was because I knew that that was going to solve students management problems and also engagement problems.

Colin: If I can just briefly cut in there because you told me off mic in a previous discussion that you every early in your career where you came to that realisation about engagement but then, later on, you went to a conference where you were wondering "Am I the only person in the room who doesn't have classes of fully engaged learners?" Can you tell us about that experience?

Richard: Yeah. So, we were talking about the elephant in the room. I think there is an elephant in the room and it is called 'Lack of Student Engagement'. So I was at my first state Mathematics conference. Maths conferences might sound scary to people, especially, to teachers who are not mathematics teachers. But they have full of inspired people who have got lots of great ideas to share. And so I'm sitting in these sessions mostly run by teachers showing the latest ideas that they are using in their classrooms. And I am sitting there; because, I was in a new school and I was an experienced teacher. But you know it is like when you shift the schools - the first couple of years can be really tough; because you are trying to change the culture or you are developing a culture of learning in your classes and you have to get the kids on-side.

That was a point in time when I wasn't happy with where my students were at, in terms of being on the same page. They weren't engaged in the way that I was aiming for them to be. So I was sitting in these sessions at the mathematics conference thinking “This is fantastic but I can't implement these ideas yet because I haven't got my students engaged" And I go to another session, and I think “Wow, this is awesome. I’ll take notes here but I can't use this yet, because I don't have my students engaged.” And I'm thinking "Am I only the person in this whole conference that thinks like this, that doesn’t have his kids on-side?” These were all activities that will work fantastically when you have engaged students, but I didn't have my students engaged so I couldn't run any of these activities.

Colin: Did you get a chance to ask any other people there whether they had similar experiences to you?

Richard: No, of course not! (laughs), because I felt quite inferior being in these sessions and everyone else appeared to 'have their ship in order'! And so I had that classic sense of “There is an elephant in the room, and no-one is talking about it". As time went on I became quite confident that there was a great need (for such sessions) and I realised how weird it was - having all these highly skilled people at Mathematics conferences, running great sessions yet never talking about engagement - just assuming that the teachers in their sessions had engaged learners.

And so over a few years I began to deliver some (typical) sessions at conferences and then thought, “I’ll run a session on student engagement in Maths and see how it goes down.” And I have run a couple of those over the years and they have gone really well. And I tell that story (about “Am I the only one at conference sessions who doesn’t have all students engaged?” and there's a lot of head nodding going on in the room. So I realised "I am not alone. This is real! People do think about this. It is an issue but no one talks about it.” So at least I had a crack. I mean I don't think there are many such sessions run at these conferences! So, I just find it weird, because, if students aren't engaged you can't do anything other than standard, "Open your text to page 123, we will answer these next two pages of questions" and you have to ‘crack the whip’ to get the work out of them. And that has to be the most basic level of Maths teaching around, I think.

Colin: So, the issue that I find interesting as well is we like to talk about things like students centred learning but what if the student doesn't actually want to be at the centre of their learning?

Richard: Well, that's probably likely; because, don't forget we have already talked about this before. If you look at a toddler or a pre-schooler that child is fully engaged. You don't have to worry about engagement with toddlers. It doesn't matter what they are doing. They are into it. It seems that when institutionalised learning takes over - especially if it is very prescriptive and top-down - that tends to knock a lot of the engagement and enthusiasm out of children. They become ‘schoolees’ where they have to learn the system. Some of them become very good at earning ‘brownie points’ from their parents and teachers by gaining A’s and good marks. And that is the game they learn to play. Which is sad because education could be much more than that. (And of course many students don't learn the system and falsely learn that they are a poor learner, a failure).

Colin: Well let's park what we think the system gives us a successful model for a moment and ask what is then a definition of Student Centered Learning - what's your take on it?

Richard: Well this is a really good question because since doing the first podcast with you I have listened to few of the other podcasts (which were fantastic by the way). One of the problems about talking about these ideas is definitions because what one person's view of Student Centered Learning or being a facilitator is can be completely different to the views of others. For example, what I see as conceptual learning in a mathematics classroom can be a very different to what another sees. So I think we need to define some things.

And I realised, after listening to some of your guests that there is a prevailing view that if you are running a program which is more student centered - which means it gives students more freedom to explore things on their own or at their own pace or in their own way - then the teacher is a facilitator rather than a direct-instruction teacher. And the prevailing attitude seems to be that the facilitator role is quite passive. And when I heard this I was shocked because I have never ever viewed a student-centered approach as requiring a passive facilitation role from a teacher. In my experience, it is way more active, way harder - physically harder - to run a student-centered approach than it is a teacher-directed approach.

Colin: Why do you say that?

Richard: Well, before I answer that - my idea of (one form of) a student-centred approach is where you are delivering a unit of work to students - whether it be online or on a piece of paper - so that students have a lesson by lesson breakdown. There are strict guidelines as to what they need to achieve and by what date; they need to mark their own work and show second attempts for incorrectly answered questions and so on. So there are requirements built into the unit and what happens is the students have a choice in regard to the speed at which they progress through the unit. One consequence of this is ‘student spread’ and a lot of mathematics teachers are not too keen on students spread because it is something you have to be able to manage. But in my situation what that meant was rather than doing frequent whole-class 2-5 minute lectures (because, I am pretending that all of these students are at the same level, which they are not), a student-centered approach will mean that certain students reach certain spots in the unit at different times. And because within any mathematics unit you need to give certain instructions at specific points in the unit, I would be teaching that small, compacted bit of information to the first three or four students who reached one of these points. And then bit later another bunch of students would reach that point. And so I would say “Right, Bill has just asked me about (and I’d describe what it is) … Who else needs to hear this? If you do then raise your hands (5 hands go up). OK, so I’m taking to you 5! Watch here, the rest of you work on quietly.” And then I'd again deliver that 2-5 minute lecture, and again when another bunch of students arrived at that point. So that is what I call “A Mini Lesson".

And I just stumbled across this as a more efficient - actually a more effective - way of running a unit because this way results in students expressing little ‘needs to learn’ - they hit a 'road-block' and say “Mr A, can you show me how to do this …” So they are tangibly asking for my help rather than me deciding when they need to know what. The students are governing when I teach them what, much more so than for a traditional approach. This type of student centred approach is ‘chalk and cheese’ in regard to the engagement it produces!

So this is a highly scaffolded unit of work which is different because students can navigate through it much more in their own time. So it is more student-centered and much more engaging. But here’s the thing - my role is active. So, I am teaching things multiple times. It is really quite a busy lesson. It is far from a passive teaching role as I can imagine. So, I don't know what the word for that is - I always called that "Facilitation" but I am a bit loathed to use ‘facilitation' now - maybe I should call it ‘active facilitation’ because certain education ‘heavyweights’ have stated that the facilitator role is a passive one!

Colin: What sounds to me like you have got a highly structured and organised intent but the outworking of that intent tends to be quite messy. And perhaps that's another one of the sticking points.

Richard: Well, it looks messy but any teacher who go on this journey with me - and a lot do - realise this is a gradual process, and they start trialling some of these ideas and then say things like, "Oh I was bit worried because my class was a bit noisy but then I listened more closely and saw that the students were really into the lesson asking questions and working together. I thought 'this is great'. This is not like the normal noise that I am trying to squash. This is actually good noise. But I was a bit worried because the head of department might walk past and think I was having issues!” So yes, everyone does comment that it looks messy.

Any primary teacher who operates in this way - where they have 20 different things happening in the classroom at any one time and it looks like organised chaos but the teacher knows what each student is doing and the students are engaged.

Colin: Is it hard to assess?

Richard: No it is not; because my experience has been running these things with a Maths class. I also do run a course though for teachers (who don’t teach Maths) - Humanities, English, Music, etc. And this approach works for all of those areas. I think what I do is empower people who are already dabbling with this but the (Learn Implement Share programs) allows them to run with the ideas a little bit more and reassures them that what they were already attempting is actually a good thing.

Colin: Does assessment, in the end, look by and large the same? Do you have this highly scaffolded approach that then turns into an organised mess as you teach this spread and scope of students? But do you then come back and say "Okay guys now we are all going to do the same test"? Is that how it ends?

Richard: Yeah there is an end point. So obviously you need some really engaging activities, extension activities that students who complete early actually want to do. When I first introduced this system the learning culture in the school that I was in wasn’t great so it was difficult to get my students to see these extension activities as engaging. But a year on from that, the better students - or the fastest students - were really keen to get to end of the unit; because, they could have one or two lessons in this other kind of work that was still very high-level mathematics. They liked that it was more left of field and more interesting. And so everyone still finishes within a couple of lessons with each other. So you can still run your standard type of assessment task if you want to. What I am saying is this approach is simply a replacement for what I would call a conventional rules-based (procedural) approach.

And there is also the argument that we need need to give direct instruction in Mathematics because there’s certain information students have to know. And I agree. (Many commentators assume that student-centred means no direct instruction!!) But in this approach the direct instruction occurs in the mini lessons, where students have often specifically requested the information. What I am saying is that when you give your students choice in the way they go about progressing through the unit and you are not just saying "Right today you have to finish this …” so that some students might work less during a lesson and choose to do more at home, or vice versa (because, with this system, homework was built into each day’s work) the students become more engaged.

Colin: What about Student Centred assessment then? Can a student then decide as well have a choice about how they would like to be assessed? Can they come up with their own assessment task and show it to you?

Richard: Well, they could, and that's a beautiful idea. But, of course, that becomes problematic due to having to compare student’s results. One of the simplest and neatest assessment tasks which feature in a couple of the Learn Implement Share courses is the "I Can Do” assessment task. They are easy to run, and again this is most specific to Mathematics.

So if, for example, you are looking at Pythagoras Theorem, the standard kind of test would be a series of questions asking them to determine lengths of sides of right-angled triangles from diagram and (contrived) real-world situations.

But in an ‘I Can Do’ task, it is the students who make up the questions and answer them. For example, Question 1: “I can find the length of a short side in a right-angled triangle if I know the lengths of the other two sides”. And the student creates a question and answers it to demonstrate that they can indeed do this. Now the interesting thing with this is - when I was running these - I found there are certain students in my Maths class who I thought were kind of okay but they always bombed out in (standard) tests.

Colin: Right.

Richard: But they performed really well with the ‘I Can Do’ tests - the stress wasn’t there. They are more imaginative, more student centred. And where they had to draw diagrams I had these macho guys with birdies falling out of trees and other amusing scenarios and it caused me to laugh because they were so imaginative. The students enjoyed doing them. Importantly they were a much better predictor of what students actually understood! I think this is a good bridge between saying to the students "Make up your own assessment task” because the structure is there and from the rubric, they see up front what is worth 1 mark, what's worth 2 marks, what's worth 3 marks and so on. But it allows for a lot of a creativity. Interestingly it is the students who do not want to show working who do not fare so well and some of these are the so called 'brighter' (but lazy) students!

Colin: Sounds like a great concept Richard. Thanks so much for joining us.

Richard: It is always a pleasure Colin.

Colin: You have been listening to an episode of More To The Point. To find out more about my guest Richard Andrew visit

learnimplementshare.com - where you will find contact details and you can send him an email and he will respond.

I am Colin Kulpiec be sure to join me in the next time because there is also More to the Point.

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