A whole class approach to using the seven attributes of Engagement to celebrate student achievement

Mahinawa Special School, Wellington, New Zealand has embraced the Engagement for Learning (E4L) approach since 2015. For the past year and a half the school has included all teachers in the programme as a part of their ongoing teaching inquiry and professional development.
The school employs an ‘engagement specialist’ who assists in the administration of the programme and facilitates the professional learning groups (PLGs). Each term the groups cycle through different PLG topics, one being E4L. Through these meetings the teachers engage in ongoing professional development on the engagement approach and collaboratively problem solve challenging issues or support each other on the E4L journey. The PLGs are also a time when E4L tasks, and expectations, are set and successes are celebrated.
Given that the school had a number of new teachers at the start of the year it was decided that the PLG cycle in the first term would have a ‘whole class’ focus on the seven attributes. The ‘Post-It note wall display’ system (see photos) was used to assist new staffto recognise learning behaviour within one, or some, of the seven engagement attributes (i.e. responsiveness, curiosity, investigation, discovery, persistence, anticipation, initiation).
It helped the teachers, and teachers’ aides, familiarise themselves with the attributes and encouraged targeted observations which led to a deeper understanding of the students’ learning. It also encouraged teachers to recognise the students “abilities and potential for engagement in learning” (Carpenter et al. 2015).
The process engendered the use of the ‘engagement language’ within the class, for example, “I noticed how David really persisted with that task and showed some initiation and discovery”. This helped the teaching team extend learning opportunities and fine tune some of their planning to ensure that the teaching was increasingly personalised to enable students to demonstrate the attributes at a deeper level or additional attributes not yet seen.
Within our transition unit (students aged 18 – 21 years) the teacher involved the students in the process. From this point onwards the E4L wall display ‘took on a life of its own’ and evolved above and beyond what we had intended.
It began with the teacher or teacher’s aides sitting alongside the student and talking them through what they were recording on the Post-It. Part of this was a discussion around which attribute they had noticed and why this was important. The students showed great pride in achieving a ‘Post-It’. The board became a tool through which the teacher discussed the students’ learning with them and could celebrate their achievement. This, in itself, encouraged new levels of engagement and the students began to recognise the attributes in their own learning.
As one student told me, “I was learning something new which was tricky so I had to persist with it and I got it…. I am proud of myself”. She then showed me her Post-It for that learning task.
The teacher shared with me that the Post-Its became a type of reward system however this was not cumulative nor was it in order to work towards a reward, instead, it was more about the recognition the students received when they showed active learning. The ‘reward’ was more intrinsic and the students were proud of their achievements. “Students even started directing the staff to the attributes and would draw their attention to their active learning by saying things like: ‘I initiated this work, could I get a Post-It?’.” What this showed was that the language of engagement was truly ‘taking hold’ in the class and becoming a part of the ‘class culture’.
The teacher also shared how easy it was to discuss the students’ progress and achievements with them regardless of what level they were working at. Despite the students’ vast range of abilities, the seven attributes are relevant to all and across all learning areas. This also meant that the class could reflect on their work and progress collectively and celebrate each other’s achievements.
As a result of the ‘system’ being so much a part of the class culture, the attributes are now also being used to discuss students’ behaviour and achievements in their life skills both at school and at home. In addition this has resulted with the seven attributes aligning with the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum – ‘Managing Self’; ‘Participating and Contributing’; ‘Relating to Others’; ‘Using Language, Symbols and Text’ and ‘Thinking’. Given that the transition unit has a big focus on life skills and the Key Competencies, this has been a great synergy of a range of approaches and pedagogies.
I believe that this is a great example of how the Engagement for Learning approach can really foster a culture of active learning within a class as well as being a means to celebrate achievement.

Neil Jourdan
Registered Music Therapist and Engagement for Learning Specialist
New Zealand