Are You Really Engaging Your Students?

I’ve been pushing a lot of people’s button lately because they keep throwing around this buzz word “engagement”.  For example, we need to increase student engagement!  We need to promote student engagement!  We need to provide teaching that will develop student engagement!

The problem I have with this is that it seems to me that many people confused the word “engagement” for “entertainment”.  If kids are having fun then they must be engaged right?  And what concerns me more is the people who have taken the message about “increasing engagement” and translated that into a hidden mandate to “increase test scores”.

Well, when you ask people to define engagement you get responses like these (taken from my own staff discussion experience):

  • quiet and working
  • noisy but working
  • discussion of the topic
  • take their learning into the hallway
  • ask good questions
  • focused discussion
  • full class participation

And I’ve seen mottos that say, “We will seek to engage 100% of students, 100% of the time.”  Doesn’t that sound daunting?  It is…..

The problem is that many people have conflicting definitions of the word “engagement”.   There is a wonderful document created be a set of three people that I admire very much.  “What Did You Do in School Today: Transforming Classes Through Social, Academic, and Intellectual Engagement” created in May 2009 by J. Douglas Williams, Sharon Friesen, and Penny Milton focuses on three areas of engagement and what they mean to the students we teach.

To begin with, there are three ways that students engage within school.

Social Engagement:  These are the kids that come to school for the social aspect.  They hang out with their friends, they are part of the drama club, they play a few school sports, they sign up for every option class.  Their interest in academic subjects is not a guarantee.  It is possible they are also academic but on the whole, they are in school because it’s where their friends are.

These are the kids that I worry about the most when we start cutting back on “special” days within our schools (the full day drama camp day, the anti-bullying presentation, the anything non-academic related).  Many times this is a high school issue where they say they are losing too much class time to non-academic pursuits and how can they now possibly get through their curriculum?  They have finals to get the kids ready for!  There are diploma exams!  And we’re going to sacrifice yet another set of classes for a school wide pep rally?  I think not!

But this is where the kids who are socially engaged in school really begin to check out.  If school isn’t “fun” they’re outta there.  As class loads increase and academics become the main (if not only) goal, these kids begin to give up.  In short….many of them will drop out.      What do we do to make sure we are providing an avenue for these kids to stay in school?  If getting a high school diploma isn’t their primary goal, how do we convince them we are worth their time?

Academic Engagement: These are the kids who know what’s at stake.  They need the good grades, they want the good grades, and they have figured out what they need to do to get the good grades.  In other words, they have figured out how to play the game.  They also tend to be very independent.  They don’t like group projects because their mark could be impacted by someone else and that’s just not acceptable.  They spend hours on homework, come to your optional after school tutorials, and study like crazy for exams because they crave the bliss that getting a good grade brings them.  Are they actually interested in anything you’re teaching?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  You’ll never know because they put on a pretty good poker face.

These are the kids most often targeted in school.  When we say school is a place for “academics”, these are the kids that we’re talking about.  The problem is in some schools (although I don’t have stats on this I think it’s likely a strong rural issue) they make up a very small percentage of the class population.  I myself graduated in a class of 34.  Only 5 of us went on to post secondary and only 3 of us would successfully obtain a University level undergraduate degree.  Is it fair to make school decisions based on the minority of the population?  What does that mean for the kids that will not be going past the high school diploma?  Are they no longer as valuable?  Are we making decisions about the way we teach and operate our schools based on the minority of kids it will impact?

Intellectual Engagement:  Ah, the kids who learn for the sake of learning…..the kids who go home and build model rockets just to see how high they can make them go, or research disgusting diseases because they have a fascination for how the body works, or (if you’re my Grade 8s) those kids who go home and look up Spanish Inquisition torture techniques because your Renaissance history teacher mentioned it in passing and it just sounded too cool to resist.

Ultimately you see these kids entering science fairs, historica fairs, and anything else that peaks their curiosity.  The grade matters less to them then the academic student because the true joy was in learning about the topic.  These kids will become our doctors, lawyers, authors, etc because they have found a passion that needed developing.

And as teachers, THIS is what we truly want.  When you have achieved this in your classroom you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  When they run up to you and tell you about what they found out last night on the internet, or they correct something you said in class the previous day, or they have a video on the topic they think would be good to show the class….you want to jump and scream Hallelujah!  And it’s the more sweeter when it isn’t the “academic” kid because this really means that you got them.

Unfortunately, too often the description of what engagement looks like tends towards the list that I spoke about at the beginning of the post.  And if you look closely at it, it’s related to “on task” behaviour.  We tend to think that if kids are “on task” they are engaged.  And for the most part they are…..but what kind of engagement have you achieved?

Social Engagement?  It was an excuse for them to hang out with their peer group and talk about something that held their interest for the ten minutes you needed it for? Did they find it “entertaining” enough to engage in it?

Intellectual Engagement?  Which is what you are hoping for…..or is it more likely Academic Engagement?  The teacher pleasing, I need to get this assignment done to get the good grade, if I look like I’m working she won’t get me into any trouble…..engagement?

I attended a PD session with Sharon Friesen where she flat out admitted that it’s very hard to achieve Intellectual Engagement with kids.  Mostly because it all comes down to two major factors:  The challenge of the work and the perceived confidence in skill level.

It comes down to this:

  • Low skills, low challenge = apathetic learners
  • High skills, low challenge = bored learners
  • Low skill, high challenge = apprehensive learners
  • High skills, high challenge = interested and successful learners

Friesen describes the ideal situation of high skill and high challenge as a feeling of “flow” – that is kids are working on something they feel so engaged in that they don’t notice the passage of time.  The bell has no significance to them.  They may even fail to notice when the bell goes!  Or they will groan and ask if they really have to stop.  Or they will ask to stay in at recess and just keep working.

These students also report a high percentage of participation, a feeling of belonging, consistent attendance, and feelings of intellectual engagement.

The trick to all this, as I see it, comes down to the skill level.  So our challenge as teachers becomes, what do we do to make sure that the students have skills that will be required to be successful?  If they are lacking in these skills, what do we do about that?

The answer I’ve come up with is difficult to manage because it ultimately involves a strong notion of differentiated learning.  Matching the challenge of an assignment with the skill set of the student.  At the end of the day it will come down to how successful your student feels in class.  The more success they experience, they more they will crave.

But the next time you start talking about “needing more engagement” from your students or making “student engagement” part of your team goals, I encourage you to have the difficult conversation about what kind of engagement you are really talking about.  Uncover the hidden goals.

I found it so encouraging to be having frank staff room discussions around student engagement only to find that the sad truth is (after listening to many conversation around student achievement) I find what most people are talking about is how to increase academic engagement in order to better test scores on standardized exams.  And this makes me shake my head.  Shouldn’t our real goal be to increase intellectual engagement so that we are developing kids with a love or learning?  And if we are really targeting academic engagement, what about our socially engaged learners who are on the bubble and considering dropping out of school?

We talk often about teaching “the whole child” and then we turn around and say, “But school is a place of learning.  Academics are the focus!”

Is academic learning the only learning that takes place in school?  People get mad at me when I ask that question.  They say I’m detracting from the real issue. I say it’s an issue of perception.  If everyone is looking at a box sitting on the table they can tell you exactly what they see and they can guess at what everyone else is seeing.  The problem is that no one sees the bottom of the box unless someone stands up and flips it over.

And once you’ve come up with the difficult notion that really it’s the intellectual engagement we need to strive for you can have the super, exciting, everyone wants to have their say conversations around really tough questions such as giving out zeros, the purpose of homework, the role of assessment and grading, and lots of others things that will cause people to get their backs up.

Ask the tough questions that need asking.  Push people’s buttons.  Flip over the box.  Point at the elephant in the room and make everyone stare at it.

Stand at the front of your staff meeting and say, “What do we REALLY mean when we say we want to increase student engagement?”

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About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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22 Responses to Are You Really Engaging Your Students?

  1. largerama says:

    A good piece and some really good points made to discuss here. To my mind, I want students with an environment where all these come together. What is wrong with being an entertainer at times and an intellect the next? Trying to bring out the best in all students both at what they are good at and challenging them to come out of their comfort zone can only lead to students with a more open mind and in turn a greater learning scape.
    Your piece is valuable because, in my opinion, it is important to understand that engagement comes in many guises and these all need to be considered as do the various student mindsets in your classroom. Are these sub-groups all catered for and how are their needs going to be met in terms of the environment I describe above.?

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  3. Peter Tompkins says:

    A great conversation that needs to be had. In my experience many schools claiming to engage do not come close to intellectual engagement in any sense. “Engagement” needs greater discussion and refined definition. Thank you for raising this issues.

  4. I appreciate articles like this that challenge the mot-de-jour. At some point these words lose their meaning, or at least we tend not to be as thoughtful about what they mean over time. Stepping back to consider the larger picture and deeper meaning refreshes our understanding and encourages more purposeful actions related to the concept.
    Manitoba created a support document for student engagement and requires assessment and reporting of engagement in grade 7. The core competences are: demonstrating interest, self-assessment, goal setting, participation, and responsibility. http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/assess/support/student_engage7/index.html
    It appears that the focus here is almost entirely on academic engagement which, I suspect they would argue, is the point of schools. The broader picture is much more nebulous and harder to measure, but no less critical. As we shift from concept learning to process development, we nurture skills that enable to experience more fully that with which they are engaging.
    Largerama above has a point about entertainment – the value of an effective hook to engagement shouldn’t be dismissed, nor should it be the sole purpose.

  5. Mike says:

    This is great. I love the notion that intellectual stimulation is what we should really strive for. Engagement means getting totally lost in a challenge and becoming lifelong learners. Great article.

  6. Interesting article. I teach in Adult Education, and when students aren’t engaged they simply don’t come to school. No one requires them to come, so if we aren’t doing anything for them, they stay home. As you suggested, we in Adult Ed often find ourselves taking advantage of the social engagement to get students in the door when they aren’t ready for the other two. Does anyone have any suggestions for applying technology to any of these three types of engagement? I would be interested to hear them.

  7. This is something that has frustrated me also. I’ve heard the term ‘engagement’ used by many people in education and I’m convinced that most of them had a different definition as to what engagement is to the others. Having been researching this topic this year for my thesis, I’ve discovered that often the term is used without explaining what is meant. It often seems to be assumed that all educators know what it is, however I think it is something that should not be assumed especially due to the many understandings of the term around. I’ve written a post about this same issue before – thanks for bringing it to our attention again.

  8. born1963 says:

    I agree with the above discussion. This term I have had the opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice and thought it might be of interest to share the result.
    I am a computer or IT teacher of year 8 in rural Australia. I have a class either side of recess at 11am. It is such a joy to constantly be asked “can we stay in over recess and keep working?”. They are “flowing” as mentioned above. Due to the nature of the group, I have 4 different work tasks happening at once. Building and programming Lego Mindstorm robots, C++ programming tutorials on the Khan Academy, web site development (wordpress) and an online text book, question and answer activity. Each task has deadlines and will be assessed next week. All tasks are uploaded on Edmodo (LMS) and my room is buzzing with what I call “visceral learning”. You can feel it.
    Students are bouncing from one side of the room to the other, commenting on other people’s posts and animations on the programming site. The other question I often hear is “Hey, How did you do that?” “How did you make your robot spin?” In amongst this chaos is a handful of students with headphones on listening to the Khan Academy videos and Tutorials. Still others are reading the textbook, answering the questions and posting them on Edmodo for me to assess. They are all self directed. Some will achieve more than others I know, but those who are engaged are already writing programming code better than me. My role at the start of term was to point out a direction we could all head and then give then the vehicles to travel in. “Don’t wait for me, move through as fast as you want, find your own path.” Some students were unsure of this approach and asked “Which one do I do first?” “It doesn’t matter, just get going. We have 8 weeks” I said.
    Immediately I had 70% of the students self directing their learning and not taking recess. This allowed me to spend time with the other 30% who needed extra help. The term is nearly over and next week will tell how much they can recall in a structured assessment. To my mind the assessment is irrelevant because both the students and I can see what we have learn by what we have created.
    I would call this engagement.
    David Forrest
    Sapphire Coast Anglican College,
    NSW Australia.

  9. Good call Will, but when you talk about students lacking in the skills, I’m far more concerned about some teachers lacking the skills to push beyond staffroom discussions into transforming their skills toward becoming lifelong learners themselves. You also talk about kids developing a love of learning, I’m also wondering where the love of teaching has gone? I’m positive it still exists deep down, but maybe more of us in the profession need to have our buttons pushed to help us realise that we are part of the missing component toward discovering others engagement needs, that is…what do we need to do to become more engaged when engaging others! Thanks again for your articles.

  10. Iris says:

    What about teacher engagenent? When we have teachers that are intellectualy engaged or socially engageg?.. Could we ask ourselves as teachers are we 100% always engaged in all 3 areas? Why we go to school every day? What motivates us or better yet how we keep our motivation up so our students are fully engaged.? Why we can’t have fun teaching even if we are being observed by others?

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  12. Nancy Blair says:

    I wish more teachers would think about this issue of “engagement.” Too many teachers I encounter seem to believe engagement is synonymous with compliance–if the students are quiet and look busy, they consider them to be “engaged” in the learning. Uh, no–not so much. The term “engagement” doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of consensus of what engaged students look like and how to achieve the “flow” you mentioned. Often, when I talk to teachers about the types of engagement you’ve presented, they look at me like I’m a bit nuts. More of theses types of conversations need to happen in schools. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  13. msagostino says:

    I really enjoyed this post Cherra-Lynne. It was extremely interesting and thought provoking. It will certainly force me to take a look at my own methods of engagement. I start every new topic in a unit with an “engage” activity that could be anything from a diagnostic clicker-quiz, a video clip, a Ted talk, a simulation etc…I think what I am looking for in that respect is not academic engagement, but intellectual engagement. I want the students to be inspired to explore more after they leave class that period. I consider it successful if we spend the entire class discussing the activity and going on wild tangents about biology and science. At the end of the unit when I ask students to write a reflection, if they mention they enjoyed that activity, I feel like it has truly engaged them if they can still remember it specifically. As you said, if they come to class the next day with more questions or information regarding the activity, I feel like it has worked. I also think academic engagement is significant and try to differentiate as much as possible so that students can choose activities that will challenge yet also interest them. Thank you for giving me even more to think about!

  14. Terry Nichols says:

    I especially enjoy the continuum in regards to the skill and challenge issue. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as a challenge for the tacher to constantly strive to provide the learning environment where skills and “appropriate” challenge are constantly adjusted to ensure an optimum learning experience or “flow” . “Flow” in the classroom could be more of the norm with lesson design and not just lesson planning. Ther are too many times in the classroom where the learning is based on “one skill and one challenge” = no learning.

  15. Terry Nichols says:

    One additional comment. Schletchy work on lesson design provides a vocabulary,if for nothing else, allows for discussion. WHY kids do the work is a very important question to be asked and can be addressed in the lesson design not just lesson planning. What are we being deliberate and intentional about in our lesson design around student learning.

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  18. I am really interested in the concept of engagement and more specifically, how to engage my students so that they are actively immersed and completely absorbed in their learning; so they are taking charge and directing their own learning; so they are inspiring others with their passion and enthusiasm and creative ideas; so that they want to learn more; so they can reflect on and specifically explain what it is they are learning about or have learnt.

    We all know it when we see it! And then so often we wonder – how did this happen? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again? How can we provide more opportunities like this to create the best learning environment and obtain the best learning outcomes for my students?

    It was interesting to read how Cherra-Lynne mentioned we need ‘high skills and high challenge’ in a lesson or activity to engage students at the highest level. It would be good for teachers when planning learning experiences for their students to evaluate these in terms of this description. Have my students got adequate skills to be able to independently (of the teacher) engage in the activity? Are my students being given a challenge that is attainable (not too easy, not too hard) and one that they will be interested in? This is a significant part of the discussion because we want our students to buy in, we need our students to buy in to what we are providing.

    I agree with what Terry Nichols said above about how the challenge for teachers is “to constantly strive to provide the learning environment where skills and “appropriate” challenge are constantly adjusted to ensure an optimum learning experience or “flow”.

    I’ve found some answers for my year 6 students, but I’m still searching. One thing that I know is that they want to be part of the learning process. They don’t want to be told ‘how’ to do it, they want to make their own choices and figure that part out for themselves.

    This is an excellent discussion to have. So many people have so many creative inspiring ideas. I learn so much from sharing with others and listening to others and it inspires me to think in ways that I never would have considered before.

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  22. I like the distinction here between academic and intellectual engagement. Increasing the academic self-esteem to coax the apprehensive learner I think is mostly about emotional engagement and helping them find authentic and purposeful work. I see that as project based learning done well.

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