Another Look At Engagement


“Engagement” is one of those things in education for which teachers often have different perspectives on how important it is.  On one hand, there is the sense that without engagement, there is no meaningful learning happening (which is probably true).  On the other hand, there are many who argue that “fun” is definitely engaging, but that having fun does not necessarily imply learning (also true).  Ultimately I think that all educators want the same thing: to maximize learning.

The way I am currently seeing it, there are a variety of elements to engagement that will facilitate greater learning.  I discuss each one below, starting from the aspects that I think have the highest impact on learning:

Meaningful and Relevant

Completing tasks that students see as meaningful and relevant will produce the greatest foundation for engagement.  In this state, the learning becomes self-directed and inwardly motivated.  Students are learning about something that they think will benefit them (beyond getting them a good grade), or that they are personally invested in.  In the best case scenario, the task will also benefit others.  Clay Shirky talks about participating in projects that are of communal value (useful to a community of peers – e.g. your class, or school) or of civic value (useful to society at large).  From this perspective, teachers can ask themselves, “is the world (or our city/school/class) a better place from the investment of time that my students put into this assignment?”


The idea of making lessons and assignments purposeful has a strong relationship to being meaningful and relevant.  But even if we scale back the picture a little bit (after all, not every lesson or assignment can change the world), it is still very useful to focus on how what you are doing right now relates to what students will be doing in the future.  In other words, do students understand how this lesson/activity/discussion/quiz/work period is part of the larger “roadmap” of the unit and course?  If not, they are likely to see their investment of time as busy-work.  I think it is often the case that, though the teacher has a clear understanding of the big picture, they often fail to articulate the process well enough for students to become invested.  Better yet, can your students help you create the roadmap?


Long ago, Vygotsky brought clarity to the idea that learning is a social experience, steeped in cultural and institutional contexts.  Since then, the amazing research that has been done on Cooperative Learning reinforces the idea that we learn better when we talk and interact with others.  In my experience, if you want engagement, you have to learn how to effectively implement cooperative learning strategies (which takes time and practice – a journey I am actively on).  When students have meaningful conversations with each other, they will be engaged, and they will be learning.


If nothing else, try to engage students with fun.  “Fun” does not have to mean playing games, though “gamification in education” is probably something worth giving some attention to, as it goes far beyond creating “Jeopardy review” games.  Fun can also mean telling stories, drawing/animating, building things (or breaking things), moving around, acting out, and exercising creativity in general.  As teachers we all know there is content that just needs to be covered because it is important to the broader body of knowledge in a subject. If you can’t find a way to make the content meaningful, relevant, purposeful, or social … at least try to make it fun.


Ultimately, engaging classrooms are not built on only one of the elements above, but incorporate many (or all) of them at different times and to different levels of use.  It’s also important to remember that students understand that not every lesson, activity, or assignment is going to be unbelievably engaging.  The problem is when your default state is, “I know it’s boring, but you have to do it anyway.” Students will let you get away with that to some degree, but too much of it and they will turn their brains off at the door … so you can throw the learning out the window!

Image credit:  mikhoohkim

Learning Environments

IMG00035-20100513-0950When I first started teaching, I used to get more frustrated with my students.  I remember feeling that the only time they took learning seriously was when I would stand at the front of the room and deliver a note.  If I asked them to participate in an activity that required any self-regulation, such as a lab investigation, my students would always get off task.

I have learned to stop blaming my students.

I came to understand that my students didn’t take my activities seriously because I didn’t take the activities seriously! Unintentionally, I would undermine their commitment to each task by the simple fact that, in my mind, I believed the tasks represented “bonus learning” – that the activities were auxiliary to a lecture/note.  For example, I would deliver the content as a lecture and then ask the students to “investigate” the content in a lab.  Or, I would ask students to debate an issue and then lecture them about the pros and cons in the lesson the next day.  I was undermining each activity because the students quickly came to know that the activity was not as important as the note that came before or after.  It was easy for students to think, “why should I learn something on my own if Mr. Whisen is going to tell me what I need to know afterwards anyway?”

A couple of years ago I realized that I needed to change my approach.  It is now clear in my mind that the activity is not auxiliary to the lesson, the activity IS the lesson!

To help clarify this change in approach for my students, I decided to outline explicitly the different types of “learning environments” in which they will be actively engaged throughout the course.  I even created simple icons to capture the essence of each learning environment.  There are 5 in my mind:

1. Direct Instruction

  • lessons, demonstrations

2. Independent/Reflection

  • homework/problem sets, independent reading, reflective writing

3. Class Activity

  • labs, debates, discussions

4. Tutorial Groups

  • small group discussions, projects, cooperative learning strategies

5. Social Network

  • blogging, forums, photo/video sharing, social bookmarking, wikis

Instruction Independent-Reflection Classroom Activity

Tribes clean Social Network

I believe that re-framing the way I understand “learning environments” has had a profound impact on the level of engagement in my classroom and it has improved student learning.  However, it was not as simple as just telling the students about the different types of learning environments.  It’s one thing to say that an activity “IS the lesson,” but it’s much more difficult to create an activity that can truly be considered a standalone instructional piece.  It takes careful scaffolding and a balance between being too challenging (that they give up) and too easy (that they become disengaged.)  Accordingly, I have been slowly building up a repository of standalone learning activities, but it takes time.

Students need to know why they are being asked to do something.  I have learned that by emphasizing all of the different ways that students will be expected to learn, they begin to see each activity as important.  In order to communicate my learning expectations to students, I put a far greater emphasis on #2, 3, and 4 in the first few weeks of classes.  I think this helps to get the class off on the right foot.