Three Myths of Student Engagement

Dead-Poets-SocietyMy friends at Mindshift asked me to do a guest post on their blog. Once again, you should see it in its original form (not least because you’ll see loads of connecting posts) but if you’d rather see it here, continue reading:

“It might be time we re-thought student engagement. Are we measuring the right things? Are we taking disengagement seriously enough? January is a time for resolutions. Perhaps educators, in 2014, need to resolve to better understand student engagement, challenge the myths around it, and make it a higher priority in their relationships with students.

Let’s deal with the issue of the importance of engagement first. A recent longitudinal study of Australian students has published conclusions that every government minister for education should heed. Tracking students over a 20-year period, researchers found that the more children felt connected to their school community and felt engaged (rather than bored), the greater their likelihood of achieving a higher educational qualification and going on to a professional or managerial career, over and above their academic attainment or socio-economic background. In other words, an engaged child from a low socio-economic background will have better opportunities in life than a disengaged child from a more privileged background. This is a crucial message for ministers grappling with the inequality gap.

But for these findings to translate into actions, we have to re-think what we mean by engagement. For too long we have confused engagement with compliance or, worse still, “fun.” This confusion has led to a number of myths distorting how we act, and what we look for, in the classroom.

Myth #1: “I can see when my students are engaged.”

Don’t be so sure. Those who have switched off are often only the visible tip of the disengagement iceberg. The ones below the surface could be “invisibly disengaged” — complying but not engaging. A great empathetic principal once told me of her shock in discovering that one of her best students (in terms of behavior and achievement) had been bored every day in school.

“But why didn’t any of your teachers spot this?” she asked.

He replied, “I learned how to fall asleep with my eyes open.”

Students are learning to modify their behavior in class so that they appear to be engaged while, in reality, they’ve intellectually checked-out.

Myth #2 : “They must be engaged — look at their test scores!”

In a culture driven by test results, it’s understandable that teachers should assume that students must be engaged when their grades improve. But this culture has given rise to a relatively new phenomenon: the disengaged achiever. I speak from personal experience, being the father of two bright sons who got good high school grades, but they reasoned that the control and direction over their learning that they sought was best achieved by leaving formal education and continuing to learn socially, outside school.

Myth #3 : “They must be engaged — they’re having fun.”

The wise-cracking, charismatic teacher might look great in the movies, but that doesn’t always lead to deep student engagement. Humor is important, of course, but students need intellectual stretch — shallow engagement isn’t enough. Seymour Papert coined the phrase “hard fun” to describe learning activities that absorb and challenge students, because they have rigor, relevance and stretch.

So, if we recalibrate what we mean by deeper, more challenging, forms of engagement how do we achieve it? Current research suggests that there’s no single magic ingredient. Another important study, published at the end of 2013 by University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan, indicates that success is likely to be found in combining a number of motivators: agency, choice, purpose and relevance:

“Opportunities for decision making or freedom of action are less important than the extent to which the decision making and action opportunities available reflect personal goals, interests, or values.”

The revered Indian philosopher and educator, Sri Aurobindo, knew a thing or two about engagement. His three principles for learning still serve as an important guide in designing engaging learning:

  • Nothing can be “taught” — engagement precedes learning, so students need to actively buy in to their learning, in order to bring discretionary activity to the process (that is, above and beyond the required outcomes)
  • The mind must be consulted in its own growth. Activities need to personally matter to students, tapping in to their values and passions.
  • Work from the near to the far. Make activities relevant to the world students inhabit, but build in intellectual stretch to take them beyond their cognitive “comfort zone.”

So, we know engagement can’t be done to students; we are realizing its importance in improving the life-chances of some of our poorer students; we now know it’s a lot more than just compliance.

Our challenge, in 2014 is this: Can we become designers of learning, rather than deliverers of worksheets? Can we create opportunities for learning which simultaneously inspire, challenge and deepen students’ innate love of learning?

David Price is an author, learning futurist and senior associate at the Innovation Unit in London, England. His new book is OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live And Learn In The Future is available on Amazon.”

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3 Responses to Three Myths of Student Engagement

  1. 4c3d says:

    In achieving engagement I am a great believer in three principles, although the meaning sometimes gets lost in translation into lessons and learning.

    The first principle is summed up by the term “Welcome to my world.” and is what I want teachers to demonstrate through their passion for learning and their subject. The room and resources they create should echo this statement. There should be an environment which shouts “I really love this stuff” where ever you look in the room. Teachers need to model the engagement they seek from their pupils/students at every opportunity. This needs to extend outside of the classroom (an artificial barrier to engagement if ever there was one) and into any and every opportunity they meet with the young learners. If it is important to you then your students may just buy into it too. How many students have chosen a subject because of the teacher’s love for that subject?

    The second principle is to understand learning needs. Provide for most of these, most of the time and you will get the horse to water, you need principle 1 to get it to drink. The key needs are:
    A sense of belonging, to be recognised for who they are, to be known and to have an association
    A sense of power, of being heard, of having a voice and to be listened to
    A sense of freedom to make choices and to understand the consequences of those choices within a caring environment which is supportive and not critical
    A sense of fun, to recognise the joy of learning and in applying knowledge. To be given the opportunity to be creative having bridges knowledge with understanding through learning.

    The third principle is what I call “Learning Intelligence” (LQ) defined as the ability to manage your learning environment to meet your learning needs. LQ is a construct and involves attributes, skills and behaviours that can be developed. Application of LQ gives the learner the tools to re draw their “learning map” (what they believe they can and cannot learn) and to see challenges not as limiting but as extending their opportunities.

    You can find articles about these 3 principles on my website and on my blog. Here are a few links if you wish to explore these three principles further.

    Principle 1:

    Principle 2:

    Principle 3: :

    There are over 20 articles discussing and describing LQ on the blog at:

    Comments and questions always welcome.

  2. I don’t mean to over-simplify, but engagement is merely another intellectual concept unless the teacher lives from that state of mind. We must work from both ends of the spectrum if we want education that is engaging. We need inspired teachers with inspired mentors to help them remain challenged as an educator, engaged daily in their job. Which means we need an educational system that takes teachers more seriously. There is no “education” without engagement for that is what grabs the mind, asks it to think and reach, to put the puzzles together.

    Years ago I offered a school a program at the middle school level that was based around a behavioral model, since all I could see around me were kids trying desperately to learn how to relate to each other. My science classes held little relevance for them. It wasn’t that I stopped teaching science as my response. Rather I began to devise methods to deal instructively with all the emotional froth. My students began to learn how to handle the moods and emotions they’d bring, how to address their fears. From that developed the trust I needed to get through bits of science that didn’t appear so relevant. I showed the powers to be how that theme of relationship could run through all subject matter, not as an intellectual concept but as a working model for classroom and life behavior. Kids learn amazingly fast when you first attend to what’s bothering them. Alas, no one was interested.

    Today the demands on education are even heavier as families are even less cohesive and all that is falling through the cracks ends up in the classroom. Classrooms need to mimic functioning families or communities. We can no longer believe that education will somehow occur in the lives of children with so many unmet emotional and social needs.

    • 4c3d says:

      Christina – I agree we need teachers who model the attitudes and behaviours we wish to develop in learners. I think the program you offered demonstrated the four basic needs teachers should address if they are to build learning relationships with their students. It also shows how important relationships are across the whole school. Your las tpoint is also of great importance.


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