We had an excellent discussion last week during the September meeting of the Roundtable for Learning Leaders. The discussion topic was, “What does good learning mean to you?” For over an hour, we got to consider this question from a variety of perspectives, including that of the learner.

When the discussion turns to ideas about what learners really want, a word that often gets thrown out there is that learners want learning to be “engaging.” And this certainly came up prominently in the discussion at the Roundtable meeting—Learners say that good learning is engaging.

But that got me thinking, what is really meant when someone says “engaging learning”? How would I recognize “engaging learning” if I were to encounter it in the wild?

Often this concept is discussed as if engaging learning were a proper noun, and I could simply compare an unknown species of learning that I encounter out there in the wild with some pictures in The Field Guide to Engaging Learning to determine if I am, indeed, looking at the species in question. Of course, we can’t do that.

When we say “engaging learning,” engaging is an adjective. It modifies or qualifies a noun, but on its own it has no specific meaning. Yet I think we’re often tempted to ascribe meaning to the word engaging. In many cases, when someone says “engaging learning,” it’s taken to be a synonym for “highly interactive,” or “containing lots of video or other high-end media eye candy,” or in some cases even “game-like.” But is this really what learners want, or are these simply candy sprinkles on top of something else that’s driving the real engagement?

I think we should view “engaging” for what it is—a context-driven attribute. If you were sitting in a Starbucks and saw a book entitled Repairing Land Rovers in the Field on the table, you might not  give it a second glance, much less pick it up to see if it makes for engaging reading. Even if you own a Land Rover vehicle, most of us would say, “That’s what the dealership is for.”

Now change the context. If you were on a photo safari in South Africa and you found that same book next to the tool kit in the back of your broken-down Land Rover, you may find it the most engaging book you’ve ever read. It would only get more so as darkness set in. Context in learning, like location in real estate, is everything.

This Roundtable discussion changed my view of engagement.

In the future, the question I’ll be asking is not what “is” engaging learning. Instead, I’ll be seeking to find out directly from the learners some of the “whys” that drive their engagement. Why does (or why would) the target learner find something engaging? What is the context? I think getting some direct learner feedback would often really change the perspective on how learning can be engaging.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic and I’d be interested in feedback from others in the L&D community. And by the way, if you’re a leadership-level L&D professional in the Twin Cities area and you’re not a member of the Roundtable for Learning Leaders, you should be!  Contact us for more information.

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