Have you noticed how the noun ‘engagement’ and its verb and adjective equivalents are used so much these days? These are catch-all words used to denote some sort of interaction between two or more parties and the beauty of them is that they are so vague they could mean anything.
So when Captain Jean Luc Picard says “Engage!”, he means “turn on the warp drive”. But when Tom Cruise ‘engages’ the evil Russians in his F-14, he’s actually attacking them with air-to-air missiles.
But ‘to engage’ can also denote an attempt to ‘attract’, as in engaging someone’s interest. It can also be used to denote employing or hiring someone as in “I engaged the services of a lawyer to get me off that speeding charge”. Of course there’s the obvious one of being engaged to be married.
These days, though, the verb ‘to engage’ can also mean just doing something. You might say something like “I like to engage in a little bit of five-a-side football” when it fact it would be easier and more logical to say “I play a little bit of five-a-side football”.
But very often, the verb ‘to engage’ is used quite deliberately as a means of saying something without really saying anything specific. An example might be: “We will engage with all stakeholders before making a decision”. In this context, the word ‘engagement’ is used quite deliberately because it is neutral; the precise nature of the interaction between the parties is left unclear.
The word ‘engagement’ is one of the most frequently-used words in education these days. Here’s a review article on it; it’s a 52-page exercise in semantics.
People say things like “students learn best when they are engaged” where ‘engagement’ seems to mean learning enthusiastically to the point of enjoying the experience. (Actually, the idea that you learn best when engaged as defined above is actually very arguable. In fact, it’s probably wrong.)
We also hear educators say things like “we need to do more to engage our students” or “students need to engage with their own learning”. We have the Irish Survey of Student Engagement even though it is more of a survey of the quality of the higher education system than a survey of the two-way interaction between the system and the students. By my reckoning it has only one question out of dozens that actually asks students what they put into their education as opposed to what the system does for them.
The basic problem is this: we all know that in this smartphone age, students have, quite understandably, very significant problems focusing on their studies. We also know that affluence has made youngsters less driven, less hungry for success* and generally more fragile. Will we dare admit this in public though? In the main, no, because when you say these things you are likely to be labelled as old-fashioned or traditional or out of touch. You’ll be accused of 20th century thinking, whatever that is. And so the educationalists of this world, with their collective guilt complex, stand up at conferences using words like ‘engagement’ because it’s neutral and safe and doesn’t offend anyone. But in the end, nobody really knows what it means and hence they can get away with writing 52-page articles about it.
*This is just an anecdote but I recently reviewed applications from first year students for a wonderful scholarship that we were offering. The five shortlisted candidates that we interviewed were all naturalised Irish; born in Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Nigeria and China. That may be coincidence but it does suggest a lack of hunger on the part the Irish-born students. All five of the students had come to Ireland while at primary school and had overcome big challenges in learning English and adjusting to Irish culture.