Busting the Myth of Student Engagement

The following is an excerpt of our latest article on student engagement, “Demystifying Student Engagement,” written by Jaime LaForgia, director of professional development content, Discovery Education.


Picture a student-centered classroom full of inquiry and engagement. Seventh-grade students are in groups — some around a computer conducting a virtual lab from Discovery Education Techbook, others working with their teacher reading an informational text about the phases of the moon, and another group is on the floor exploring interactive glossary terms with an iPad.

The principal walks in and is amazed by what she sees. She comments on the powerful use of digital tools and level of student engagement. Only I knew what lurked below the surface of this classroom. What the principal viewed as effective instruction, I saw as a failure to my work as a coach.

I had worked with this teacher in the planning and preparation of the lesson a few days before, and the planning process had been challenging for me as a coach. The teacher was excited about the possibilities of Techbook and wanted to dive into its interactive resources because she knew they would engage her students.

While I shared her excitement, the instructional coach in me was concerned. I tried instead to guide her toward determining what she wanted her students to understand and be able to do at the completion of the lesson. She needed to let that essential information guide her toward choosing the right resources within Techbook, which would make learning more coherent and meaningful for her students.

Our coaching conversation took place in a 40-minute block, so the teacher was tasked with completing the lesson plan on her own. Unfortunately, the lesson had no clear learning targets or outcomes. Students were working in stations that were unrelated to one another. There was no unity or cohesion, and the work didn’t push students toward deep understanding of the scientific content. On the surface, however, it looked fantastic because the students were so engaged in the work.

What this example illustrates is the superficial engagement we see too often in schools. How do we as leaders support our teachers in creating routine learning opportunities that promote authentic student engagement?

Going Beyond the Definition of Engagement

We must first dig deeply into our existing definitions and perceptions of student engagement. Traditionally, we deemed students “engaged” when they were on task, participatory, and well behaved. While we’d love to see this occur in all of our classrooms, we must set our expectations for student engagement much higher.

In an Educational Leadership article, Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda (2014) cited four keys to student engagement:

  • Clarity – What am I asking students to do?
  • Context – Why is it important?
  • Culture – How do I show my support?
  • Challenge – How do I balance challenge and skill?

While these four elements are equally important, I see most teachers and school leaders struggling to grasp the balance between challenge and skill. Jackson and Zmuda go on to describe how teachers can ensure this balance exists for all students. Their descriptors for this key factor of student engagement connect to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset — focus on effort rather than ability, teach students they can get smarter, provide feedback that promotes growth, and build academic stamina and resilience.

We’ve read the research and we all want our teachers and students to develop these habits. However, putting this theory into action can be a daunting task for any school administrator faced with the complexities and demands of college and career readiness standards.

Download the full article to read more!

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