What Student Engagement Is, and Is Not

Teachers seem to be pressured into finessing their lessons around ever-changing educational trends. When I first began teaching 12 years ago, the (seemingly) only thing my supervisors were looking for was a posted mastery objective. A few years later, it was all about appealing to visual learners with our fancy new projectors and white boards. Then came student engagement. Teachers, of course, have always sought to engage students, but that phrase is so very broad, and desperately needed clarity when it became the predominant “look-for” in classrooms.

Unlike the open classroom movement of the 1970’s, student engagement isn’t just a flash in the pan trend, it’s good teaching. Student engagement also encompasses an array of best practices including cooperative learning, personalized learning, student choice, equitable strategies, etc. Please note that none of these strategies connect to entertainment. Student engagement is not making your students laugh. It’s not about being the best lecturer in the world, and rationalizing that your students are engaged because you’re so engaging. Student engagement is not making sure students are paying attention. Student engagement is not assigning students busy work while you surf the Internet. Student engagement is not announcing “THINK-PAIR-SHARE” when a supervisor walks in for a 5-minute drive-by, then continuing bookwork or lecture when he or she leaves the room. Some of these practices can be described as “strategic compliance” or “ritual compliance.” Lessons can fall into these categories if the official reason for the work is not the reason the student does the work, the work has no meaning for the student, or if the goals are instrumental–grades, class rank, parental approval. The Schlechty Center on Engagement has more detailed reading material on these levels of engagement.

Student engagement is crafting lessons around student-driven inquiry. Students should be actively trying to figure something out. They should be researching and investigating. They should be speaking to their teacher and to one another. They should not only be answering questions, but asking them. They should be collecting and weighing evidence to make and support claims. They should have multiple options to demonstrate their mastery of both content and skills objectives. Some of their answers should be varied without a single right answer. They should be providing formative data to you in real-time, so you can make instructional decisions to guide teaching. Yes, all these things are ideals and cannot be present every second of every lesson. But these ideals should guide our planning and our teaching.

What benefit does this type of teaching and learning bring? Students will see lessons as meaningful. According the the Schlechty Center on Engagement, students in high engagement classrooms will have a high enough interest in learning to persist in the face of difficulty. Students will feel a sense of accomplishment–more for the intrinsic value of learning and less on “getting it right.”

Planning for inquiry-based lessons ins’t easy. It requires a host of resources, primary and secondary sources, access to technology, and perhaps the scarcest resource of all—time! Course teams should build libraries of lessons and ideas to share with one another. Teachers should take advantage of educational resources that do much of the work for them. Discovery Education’s Streaming Plus service provides a rich library of educational videos, podcasts, and audio clips. Teachers can create learning menus with all sorts of multimedia sources, including Streaming Plus videos, to help personalize instruction. Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbooks include interactive “historical perspectives” investigations that force students to consider multiple points of view and to corroborate conflicting pieces of evidence to draw conclusions. Discovery Education’s Board Builder provides a digital science fair board of sorts for students to create interactive multimedia displays of their learning.

From the Causes of the Great Depression chapter of Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook:

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Here’s a portion of a personalized learning menu teacher Kevin Bacon used at Leesville Road High School, using Discovery Education’s Board Builder.

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Student-centered instruction, with whatever jargon we want to use, is here to stay. It’s a main goal of 21st century teaching and learning, so students can thrive in creative, skills-based classrooms. The time is now to shift instruction, and keep shifting instruction, to achieve these ideals.


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  1. Julie said:

    Thank you for the article which provided me a lot of information.
    Always a pleasure to finally find what we seek .

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