The Curious Case Of Three "Disengaged" Learners

The Curious Case Of Three "Disengaged" Learners
Summary: How to increase learner engagement? And what is it anyway?

Three Disengaged Learners

If you’ve read my book, Engage the WORL&D!, you might know this story. For my teaching practicum, ages ago, I was thrown into teaching English in a secondary school for a semester. In reality, I was replacing the English teacher who was on medical leave, apparently partly caused by the class itself. The whole institution was about to shut down, teachers were looking for new jobs, and the kids didn’t have an English class for months. Perfect conditions to learn how to engage learners!

The Disengaged Troublemakers

Out of the 20+ learners in that class, a handful was engaged and interested to learn. The majority were neutral, and there were three particular boys in the back who were just troublemakers. One of them had blue hair, not that it meant anything. After a couple of classes, it was obvious that these three troublemakers were so disengaged that they were disruptive. This was the first time I experienced that engagement is not just a scale of zero to fully engaged. I learned that it had a negative scale as well, and I had to move it at least to neutral.

I pulled the three troublemakers aside after a class. I told them that I was not going away until I finished and graduated, and then nothing would hold me back. But since I was already here, I wanted to ask something: "What would you do if you didn’t have to be here?" Surprise! Maybe nobody had ever asked them what they wanted before? They recovered from the surprise question and replied that they would rap all day.

"Rap what?" I inquired. "Run DMC! It’s like that! Do you know it?" And with that, they went on "rapping." Now, imagine three kids who barely know the English alphabet, let alone pronouncing words, "rapping" Run DMC’s song. They were on the hook!

My last question just nailed their fate: "What’s the song about?" Total silence. "Do you want to know?" And so, the truce was made. I offered to incorporate the lyrics into my teaching if they stopped their disruptive behavior.

I enter the class the next day and the three boys were sitting in the front row with their boombox, eager to participate in class. That is my definition of engaged! Were they not engaged before? Oh, yes. They were engaged, just not in what I wanted them to be engaged in.

P.S. You should have seen their "surprise" faces when they learned what Run DMC was actually singing about: "One thing I know is that life is short, so listen up, homeboy, give this a thought: the next time someone's teaching why don't you get taught?" — Run DMC, "It's Like That!"

The result? They never listened to Run DMC again.

Disengaged Just Means They’re Engaged In Something Else!

This incident was early in my career but made me reflect on "disengaged" discussions. Because the question I often hear is "how do we engage disengaged learners?" instead of what we should be asking: "what are they engaged in instead? And why?"

How Do L&D Typically Answer The “How Do We Engage Disengaged Learners?” Question

  • Microlearning
    It’s shorter, will they love it?
  • Video
    They can speed it up?
  • TikTok
    Who doesn’t want a viral microvideo?
  • Animation
    The more movement the better?
  • Highly interactive course
    Clicky-clicky-bang-bang as Cammy Bean (accidental Instructional Designer) keeps them active?
  • Humor
    Let’s spice up the script? Hahaha!
  • Who wants to be a millionerd? Weakest cyberlink? JeoparDISC?
    Game shows are always fun! Are they?
  • Games and gamification
    You’ve logged in! Congrats! 300 points for being awake?
  • Brain-based learning (whatever that is)
    With hocus-pocus about how neurons throw a dopamine party every time you hear a Bloom action verb. Got neuro?
  • Learning styles
    90% of our learners are visual. Let’s show them more pictures?
  • Technology
    Let's dazzle them with AR/VR/XR/metaverse?
  • If everything fails, give them cookies!

Did I miss anything? Don’t get me wrong, in my 20 years, I’ve done many of these things as well. No cookies, though. In this series of articles, we’ll examine some of these approaches and explore their pros and cons. Before that, let's go back to the question we asked: "how do we engage disengaged learners?"

My very first article here on years ago was addressing the same question: can we engage learners? A couple of years wiser, today, I would reframe the question:

  1. What is learner engagement? Is it different from motivation?
  2. How do you measure learner engagement? When do you measure it?
  3. If they are not engaged in learning, what are they engaged in? And why?
  4. Is there a correlation between increased learner engagement and learning outcomes?

The Curious Case Of Another "Disengaged Learner"

A couple of years ago I attended Karl Kapp’s session on the “Case of the Disengaged Learner” at a conference. Ironically, people were really into solving the case. The narrative was framed as a detective story and the audience made decisions based on clues. Did you ever have this feeling of totally recharged, "ready-to-change-the-WORL&D" attitude with high motivation after a conference? And then reality hits, project deadlines pile up, Subject Matter Experts believe people just need to consume content, etc., and your motivation drops. You’re still engaged in discussions and design brainstorming but somehow the motivation, the driving force is gone.

This article is the first of a three-part series exploring questions related to learning, engagement, and ways to increase learner engagement. You can read the second article of the series here and the third here.