Blog Series

Engagement: What Every Learner Needs

by Michael Milone on Oct 26, 2017

  • General Education
  • Student Engagement

The dream of every physicist is finding the theory of everything. The dream of every teacher is discovering how to engage every student. How wonderful it would be for them...and us.

There is no single definition for engagement, but it is one of those constructs we recognize when we see it. Engaged students are attentive and interested in what they are doing. They are curious, hopeful about what they can accomplish, and enthusiastic. Here's a statement about engagement from Education Leadership more than 20 years ago:

Students who are engaged in their work are energized by four goals—success, curiosity, originality, and satisfying relationships. How do we cultivate these drives in the classroom?

The article is worth reading because it is highly practical and thoughtfully written. It also seems to anticipate the growth mindset, which has deservedly garnered a lot of attention recently, by suggesting one of the steps in promoting engagement is "convincing kids they can succeed."

Engagement Triggers

All learners have something that is engaging for them, and it is usually more than one thing. For some students, their engagement triggers are easily identified. (An obvious example for many male students is the phenomenon known as football season.) The engagement triggers for other students are not so easily identified.

Take a moment to think back on your educational experiences, including hobbies and other activities. What were your engagement triggers? How about the triggers for friends or family members? Can you recall teachers, mentors, or friends who were good at getting you to engage in something that was important to you?

For the most part, the instructional methods and materials we use are designed to be engaging. But to misquote a famous American president, the same thing isn't going to engage all of the students all of the time.

(Note: Abraham Lincoln might not have said the words often attributed to him, but they were written by someone else long before Lincoln. This bit of literary investigating is worth reading.)

That's where the teacher comes in. Some of the most important aspects of teaching are figuring out what engages students, making it possible for these engagement triggers to happen, and helping students recognize what engages them.

There is no shortcut to solving this puzzle, but one element seems to be present in every successful solution: a meaningful interaction between the teacher and student. Sometimes it happens between the teacher and several students who share the same interests, but often it is a case of a teacher trying many approaches before finding the one that works with a given student.

Fidelity & Effectiveness

Although the importance of engagement can't be overstated, there are two related constructs that must be considered. The first is fidelity of implementation, a topic I've covered in another blog. Even the most carefully designed instructional products or processes are unlikely to be successful if they are not implemented with fidelity. Fortunately, engagement increases the likelihood students will do their part to take advantage of well-planned learning opportunities and follow a productive learning path.

The second construct is effectiveness. In his book UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids, Eric Sheninger points out engagement does not always equate to learning. An excerpt of the book discusses the relationship between engagement and technology, but the ideas are just as applicable to other aspects of education. The final sentence of the excerpt is very good advice: “Engagement, relevance, and fun are great, but make sure there is observable evidence that students are learning when integrating technology.”

Engaging Assessment

Engagement is an issue not only for learning, but also for assessment, both informal and formal. When students respond to assessment procedures without meaningful engagement, the outcomes don't represent what they know or don't know. In some informal research in which I've been involved, we have found disengaged performance is a bigger problem than most people realize. Others have proposed technical solutions to this problem, but nothing will be as effective as developing in students a willingness to participate meaningfully in assessments they recognize as being useful to them.

It is generally acknowledged that engagement is a serious issue when it comes to mandated accountability tests. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these unloved burdens were a little more useful and engaging? Soung Bae and Kari Kokka have considered this topic in a remarkable policy document that begins with a powerful statement:

“Although research has shown that student engagement is strongly related to performance on assessment tasks, especially for traditionally underserved subgroups of students, including students of color, students living in poverty, students with special needs, and students for whom English is a second language (Arbuthnot, 2011; Darling-Hammond et al., 2008; Walkington, 2013), increasing student engagement has not been the goal of standardized tests of content knowledge.”

Let me close with a statement from NAEYC. It refers to the education of younger children, but it sounds to me as if it could apply to students of any age, and the rest of us:

"Ideally, teachers should use a wide range of engagement strategies and then masterfully facilitate their implementation. Not only do engagement strategies enable teachers to capture the interest of children as they learn the skills and concepts necessary for success in school, but children also experience what it feels like to be engaged in learning—a lifelong gift."

Engage Students with Adaptive Learning: Watch the edWeb webinar Adaptive Literacy Learning 101 for an introduction to adaptive literacy learning and how it improves each student's learning experience through differentiated instruction.


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