Sometimes by ‘engagement’ we mean ‘busy’, although just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re moving forwards. You might be busy doing the thing badly. Some skills need you to stay busy to learn them, and for a teacher to watch over you and advise you at first. Handwriting, forward rolls, sewing, typing, knitting – you need to get them all into your physical memory, so you learn them by staying busy at them. You keep moving, and when you’re new to these skills you have to focus really hard at them. But the quicker you get at the thing, the better you know you’ve got it.
Sometimes by ‘engagement’, we mean ‘focused’ or ‘attentive’. Asking children to look at the board when we are teaching from the front; getting them to look at a resource when we are explaining about it; or insisting that they listen to what we’re saying. If they don’t see or hear it, they can’t possibly learn it. There is a deeply inbuilt yearning in us, for people to look at us when we are speaking to them. For me, it’s a ‘signal’ – it helps me to gauge where I am and whether I am keeping people’s attention, but I wouldn’t force it. If I am open to making eye contact with you, then you will probably make eye contact with me.
And sometimes by ‘engagement’ we mean absorption. This kind of engagement is magical. It is a quiet, introspective flow that leads to creativity and sudden understanding. It is also setting yourself quietly to work. But I suspect the question isn’t deciding what we mean by ‘engagement’. It is deciding what we mean by learning.
The small girl lifts the top off the pumpkin and sets it to one side. She puts her hands into the pumpkin and feels around inside. Squishing, squashing. When she pulls out some seeds, strings of pumpkin flesh come out with them and she weaves them like spider’s webs between her hands. She stares at it for ages, then she brings a mouthful to her face and licks. A frown crinkles her face. She smiles. “Pumpkin!” she says. “I like pumpkin!”