Engagement | Douglas Clark

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Doug Clark is Research Professor of Design Based Learning at the University of Calgary whose research investigates the design of digital learning environments and the learning processes through which people, particularly middle school and high school students, come to understand core science and computer science concepts in the context of those digital learning environments. You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

“The trick is to figure out how to structure activities in the classroom or informal settings that productively provide students with the opportunity to work with others, to have agency, and to work on things that they find personally meaningful.”
– Douglas Clark, Professor of the Learning Sciences and Science Education, Peabody College of Education, Vanderbilt University

2018 Interview Highlights:

How do you conceptualize or define engagement?
Engagement is a tricky term. It seems to have a great deal of overlap with motivation and with interest. The distinction is that engagement tends to focus on a very present commitment to being engaged in the moment, whereas interest doesn’t necessarily do that, and motivation could be for all kinds of reasons. If you’re engaged in a given task, you’re doing it because you’re really interested in it or you really find it immersive to you, but that’s not necessarily the reason underlying motivation for a task.

How do you measure engagement in your work?
Well, in our own work, we have focused on building in features and structures that might engage people, and then looked at how that affected learning. Our measures of engagement tend to be fairly standard, such as the engagement surveys that use the Likert Scale (the standard questionnaire where respondents answer questions based on a rating scale, such as “not at all” to “very likely”). Some researchers use more intrusive means of measuring engagement, such as periodically interrupting people and asking them to report on their levels of engagement. We haven’t done something as intrusive as that because what we’re doing tends to be fairly complicated already, and we don’t want to break the flow of what people are doing. That’s another conundrum; a lot of the research on games notes that surveys interfere with the flow aspect of engagement, and you don’t want to break people out of that. So instead we’ve done a lot of post-surveys, coupled with observational work, like field notes. We haven’t done a lot of sophisticated measuring of engagement. Instead we look at environments that are considered to be more engaging and see what kind of learning happens in them.

What led you to study engagement in your work?
Well, my work focuses on designing digital game environments and other digital environments that support kids learning science. In that context, I see engagement in terms of motivation and motivation to learn. Research in educational psychology and the learning sciences in other fields has tried to identify what motivates or engages people in learning. There are heavy parallels between what educational researchers and psychologists have demonstrated is important for motivating people to learn, and what the game designers had built into these games.

What are the big questions in informal science education, science communication, or formal education science education in the next five to 10 years with respect to engagement?
A huge question would involve rethinking what school is about. I think we have a real problem, particularly in science education, in terms of the traditional framing of science education as learning science concepts that scientists know. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) seem to provide a great opportunity to make a shift, but it’s so radically different from what we’ve always done that teachers and researchers are having a really hard time thinking about what the curriculum actually looks like, and how to do this thing. I’d say the big question is how to rethink our goals for education in a way that supports an experience for students that is engaging for them, provides agency for them, and in which they see value.

Is there anything else you want to share about engagement?
We do see engagement in clubs or in some of the traditional archetypes, like, for example, a rocketry club. But we also see it in games. Look at what people are doing when they’re playing games. Or look what people are doing in terms of even more typical household or daily living tasks, like learning to cook, learning to read, or learning to talk? How is it happening, and what are the characteristics of those learning environments that lead to such engagement? Then we have to rethink why schools are so different from that.

Download full interview

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