Defining Engagement

I’ve often heard teachers say, “My class was so engaged today!”

To that I say, “Really, what were they doing?”

“A worksheet.”

(Facepalm) Or, better yet…

“They were playing an app that helps them practice their times tables.”

Is this really engagement, or is it just activity?

When a class is active, teachers experience a feeling of relief. “They are all doing something.” However, it is in the evaluation of what they are doing where you see that activity does not equal engagement. Activity supposes action where engagement is a precise combination of curiosity, skills, and agency. Engagement in more than holding attention; it is a mental propulsion system that manifest itself in perpetual asking and answering of questions. The most frustrating part about it is that students have not practiced being engaged, but they are masters of activity.

Engagement does not come from a list of instructions or multiple choice answers. It comes from relevant inquiry without set answers. The problem teachers run into is, “how do I do that in a content driven, traditional educational system?” The simple answer is that engagement is nearly impossible in a traditional, teacher-centered, lecture-driven classroom. For engagement to become the status quo, teachers have to change. The first change is lessening the fixation on what you teach, and focusing on the purpose of student learning. Said another way, stop your myopic pursuit of content to make space for students to possess the skills to be exceptional learners.

When addressing engagement in the classroom, teachers have a tendency to look for “something” that will engage the students not realizing the teacher is the primary factor for engagement. Engagement is not something that is done, but how the classroom operates. It is more than a teacher asking questions and students giving answers. It is an approach to learning that lacks hierarchy and labels where people with varied experiences find answers and the next question.

What further sets engagement apart from activity is who makes decisions. When students have no agency engagement is impossible. When students have limited agency, engagement is incremental, isolated, or inauthentic. Students having control over what and how then learn is requisite to engagement, but it is in the building capacity to handle those decision of what and how to learn where engagement becomes systemic.

The last thing that separates engagement and activity is what happens when the learning is done. In a typical classroom, “learning” (read as remembering) is broken into units, assignments, and assessments inserted into a 42 minute arbitrary block of time. When enough of those Carnegie units have passed, a longer assessment is dispensed, and then it’s on to something new. This cycle leaves no room for engagement. Only completion and compliance. Engagement’s end is satisfaction and, then, renewed curiosity. Renewed curiosity because of the perpetual nature of engagement and learning. Learning begets learning. If it doesn’t it is simply remembering.

So, think about these things in your classroom:

  1. Do you witness authentic curiosity in your classroom? Do you see a strong desire to know or learning something in your students?

  2. Is your classroom focused on skills? Are you considering the skills it takes to learn or just the mental endurace to remember?

  3. Are your students the primary decision makers in your room? Do they have the ability to choose what and how they learn?

If you answered yes to these questions, I would bet your kids are engaged. If you gave excuses, they never will be.

Your thoughts are welcomed and encouraged,

Dane Barner


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