6 Mar 2017

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Greg Mannion

In this interview we talk to Greg Mannion, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences (Education) at University of Stirling. His approach to educational research brings together theory and empirical perspectives on participation and rights-based education, intergenerational education, person-place relations, nature and culture. Much of his research looks at the way participation and learning are connected for children and young people alongside adults and communities. In recent projects, his research considers local and global connectivity in education, place-responsive pedagogies, and the role of voice and participation in raising attainment and achievement in education.

1. We recently met you, and some of your students, at the University of Stirling to discuss how student engagement can form a part of the TQFE (Teaching Qualification for Further Education) and it’s something we’ve been exploring with other ITE (Initial Teacher Education) providers too. What’s your general take on this? How do you “teach” student engagement to current or prospective FE lecturers? For instance, is it a distinct topic to explore, or something that should underpin the whole approach?

Having engaged learners is of course what all good educators want. But we teach our students that the agenda is deeper and wider than simply having ‘happy’ engaged students who want to learn what we are trying to teach. Many of us will now be using the term ‘student engagement’ but also we like to use connected terms such as learner ‘participation’ and to some extent, ‘learner voice’. Each of these terms has its own meaning and helps us consider different aspects of the links between how learners take part and what and how they learn. At its most potent level, student engagement is about a radical collegiality between staff and learners and a shared approach to the making of curricula, and the shared approach to deciding with the wider community where and how the educational establishment is headed and what educational provisions are for.

In University of Stirling, in all our teacher education areas, we see learner engagement as a driver for, an outcome of, and a process feature of, good teaching and learning. This is based on the rich tapestry of views on teaching and learning that we introduce our learners to on courses here. We don’t just want to look at teaching as merely a form of transfer of static ideas or knowledge. Instead, we remember that learners have to do a lot of work to make their own new experiences in order to learn and apply their new knowledge to new settings.

2. And what are some of the theories that inform this?

In part, various constructivist approaches to teaching and learning demand that we attend to what learners already know and how new understandings are built on that through experiences we might facilitate as educators: so learning happens through participation in experience. By another more cultural view, learning is also about learning to begin to participate in new social and material contexts; you become an effective citizen, a scientist, a beauty therapist or an engineer or a doctor though learning how to take part in the practice-based activities of the professional or vocational area: learning to become someone new through finding out how to take part, and then starting at the edges and moving into the core of it.

3. How does this link with questions about quality, and your role in creating lecturers who can work in partnership with students on enhancement?

Overarching all of this is a view that learners not only need to participate to learn, but it is also, after the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, their right to both have an education and, within that, to have a say in matters that affect them in that education and beyond. Nowadays, with the How good is our school? and How good is our college? frameworks, the agenda is shifting too to include a need for organisations to self-evaluate through engaging with learners; this is a new opportunity to think about how learners are part of the wider way in which schools and colleges improve through attending to learners’ views about, and decision making within, teaching and learning.

There is also an invitation to get learners on board with wider school communities in thinking about the overall direction of the college or school. So, it can’t be an add-on. If we take the link with learning seriously, learner participation will happen in class, through all the tasks set and collaboratively agreed, through extended and extra-curricular activities (trips, clubs), through formal governance groups (Eco-school, pupil council, PTA) and in other new ways with the wider school community (for example via peer-to-peer anti-bullying groups, on-line homework clubs, local housing groups, etc).

We have called these the four arenas of participation in our recent study which we did with doctoral researcher Matthew Sowerby and Dr John I’Anson for Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.  So, participation, taking part and having a say in the shaping of that taking part, is a driver for, a modus operandi and an outcome of good teaching and learning.

4. We actually spoke to the Commissioner, Tam Baillie, in a previous Talking Student Engagement interview, and he – unsurprisingly – said that children have the capacity to engage with shaping their learning, as long as the support and the potential is there to enable them to do so. Your own background is in primary teaching and in researching school and college experiences, and you have done a lot of research into learner participation and engagement. So presumably you’d agree with Tam’s observation?

Yes. It’s not only that they have untapped capacity – because we know from research that young people want more of a say and to participate more widely – but also, we simply cannot ‘do’ good teaching and learning without the learner participating in a deep and sustained way with others in the world. For me, the rights-based agenda and the educational participation agenda are deeply linked but folk sometimes fail to make the links in policy and practice. To suggest to teachers that they address learner engagement by say having a pupil council – and that would be all that was required – would be to miss the rich, wide and deep engagements that educators, communities and learners already have on a minute-by–minute basis through creative approaches to curriculum making, indoors, and beyond classrooms.

Also, by limiting learner engagement to being an add-on or solely formal approach to one-way consultations, we miss the way in which learners themselves, the places in which they live, their families and others are all core to all kinds of educational provision. It needs to be more than listening – it has to be a consequential intergenerational conversation. The useful 7 Golden Rules of Participation devised by the Commissioner’s office and based on our research capture that well.

If education was simply done to children and young people – like a forced treatment – we would not have needed to invent educational processes and places where learners, educators, parents and others need to work together to create opportunities for what are always new encounters and new responses to happen. That is why we looked to find out about what good schools were doing in all of the four arenas for learner participation in our research: when and how does participation happen in class, through the extended curriculum, through formal governance groups, and in other new ways with the community.

Learners need support to do this, and they need to work collaboratively with adults, but they also need the scope and freedom to make a difference in their own terms – to make their own original and distinctive differences. Some of the differences learners make through participation will be to how teachers see them, relate to them, and to how teaching and learning happens, and to how schools and colleges connect to their communities – if it is done right that is.

5. Another of your research interests is the attainment gap in schools, and we in sparqs have long believed that student engagement can have a positive impact not on quality generally but on retention and attainment. What has your research told you?

This is a fascinating area with a lot of attention being paid to it right now in policy. Lots of past studies have made the link too between learner empowerment and participation and the ability of schools in areas of deprivation to close the attainment gap. In our recent project on attainment and participation for the Commissioner’s office, we went into seven secondary schools known to be achieving better than expected for their catchments and the challenging circumstances being faced.

What we found was that in all of these schools – with no obvious counter case – there was a very concerted effort to address learner engagement in all of the four arenas we identified: in class, in extended curriculum, in formal governance and beyond. We were not surprised that these schools were active in encouraging participation; what was impressive was that all of the schools visited did a lot in all of the four arenas identified. To my mind, given the evidence, it would seem impossible, and completely counter-intuitive (when you think about it) for a school to be able to address the attainment gap without being positive about learner engagement across the life of the school.

Learner engagement will not be the only thing excellent schools and colleges are doing of course, but I think you will struggle to find a school or college that is doing well for its learners that does not take learner engagement seriously – for all of the reasons I have given: rights agendas, improvement agendas, educational reasons, and a belief in positive change led by learners as well as the educators and managers. Learner engagement is not just about formal governance then - having student reps and so on. And it is so much more than ‘listening’ to learners for their views too. We have to consider learner engagement as connected deeply to the way successful teaching and learning is brought about – as a driver for good teaching and learning, as a process within that teaching and learning, and as an outcome of it – you can begin to see how threaded the learner participation agenda has to be across the cultural life of the school or college, the democratic and caring relations between people who work and attend there, and the way that organisation makes and extends its links to local places, communities, workplaces, and, indeed, to places that are further flung nationally and internationally. We are currently working with Education Scotland to embed many of these ideas into a new framework for learner participation in Scottish education.

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Thanks to Greg for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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