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Engaged or Compliant?


Every teacher that I have ever known aspires to have their students genuinely engage with the leaning activities they are undertaking. They universally understand that meaningful learning can only occur when students are engaged. Sadly, this worthy goal is challenging to realize.


Let's stop into a couple of classrooms to see if we can recognize student engagement. Our first stop - one could hear a pin drop in this classroom. No one is speaking, There aren't any side conversations. Every one is seated. Students appear to be focused on their assigned reading, recording thoughts or potential questions in their spiral notebook. We might easily conclude that this is a well-managed classroom. But, are they engaged? Are they invested in the reading or are they simply completing an assignment? How would we know?


Second stop. It's the science classroom illustrated above. The students are working cooperatively in the accomplishment of the assigned task. Presumably, they are following the steps outlined in the experiment. They appear to understand the steps required, and have a common understanding of what the desired outcome should be, or come close to. They also appear to be assuming a collaborative approach toward the desired outcome. However, does this observed cooperative spirit forecast, let alone assure, engagement? What are they following - the steps of the task or their curiosity?


One more. The students in this classroom are actively engaged in conversation. Perhaps debate is a better descriptor. In groups, they express their opinions, their "facts," their findings based on their study of the topic. Divergent points of view are apparent as the students struggle to state their case, while remaining open to the thinking of others. There is an expectation that each student will record what transpires, and the solutions/anticipated by-products that the exercise might reveal as contributors to further study.


Engagement? Or an understanding of "how to do school?", the epitome of compliant student behavior. How is one to know? How can we be certain?


Let's examine engagement. According to the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning, "Research has demonstrated that engaging students in the learning process increases their attention and focus, motivates them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills and promotes meaningful learning experiences. Instructors who adopt a student-centered approach to instruction increase opportunities for student engagement, which then helps everyone more successfully achieve the course’s learning objectives." What does this look like?


Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini report a rubric of the stages of student engagement that was designed by a group of teachers from Upstate New York:

  • Deep Engagement: Students take full ownership of learning activities, displaying high levels of energy, a willingness to ask questions, pursue answers, consider alternatives, and take risks in pursuit of quality.

  • Engagement: Students begin taking ownership of learning activities. Their involvement shows concentration and effort to understand and complete the task. They do not simply follow directions but actively work to improve the quality of their performance.

  • Active Compliance: Students participate in learning activities and stay on task without teacher intervention. However, their work has a routine or rote quality and significant thought or commitment to quality is not evident.

  • Passive Compliance:Students follow directions in a rote or routine manner. Attention may be mildly distracted and they may need some added teacher attention or direction to remain on task.

  • Periodic Compliance: Students’ attention and participation fluctuates. They appear3distractable and stall out easily when questions emerge. May require significant teacher attention and direction.

  • Resistance: Students appear blocked, unable or unwilling to participate in learning activities. Classroom management procedures or redesign of learning activities may be required.

Even with these solidly written descriptions, the accurate identification of the true level of student engagement remains a challenge. As Silver and Perini suggest: "Engagement is a little like art: you might know it when you see it, but have a much harder time coming up with a reliable definition. Even the research on engagement shows a kind of conceptual slipperiness, as terms like participation, attention, interest, and on-task behavior all seem to float interchangeably throughout the literature." These are exactly what we observed in the three classrooms we peeked in on. We can observe behaviors. However, perceived behaviors frequently fall short of accurately capturing engagement.


Again, I rely on the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning and the instructional strategies they recommend to promote student engagement.

  • Active Learning: Active learning requires students to participate in class, as opposed to sitting and listening quietly.

  • Flip the Classroom: Class time is re-purposed for inquiry, application and assessment.

  • Dynamic Class Discussions: These activities require in-depth planning and preparation to assure that "good" discussions aren't good enough.

  • Respond to Disruptions and Incivility in the Classroom: Passionate beliefs and opinions can become disrespectful, if not addressed with purpose. Effective intervention is critical to an environment of intellectual safety.

  • Student Writing: Use writing to facilitate active learning.

  • Teach with Technology: Students today understand, expect and respect technology as a critical learning tool.

  • Large Class Instruction: Large classes cannot rely on a lecture only format. Students must enjoy opportunities to with each other, and the content, through active participation.

  • Office Hours: While typically thought of as a collegiate opportunity, this can easily be translated to making one's self available to students during non-class time to answer questions and build relationships.

  • Service Learning: Connecting in-class learning to real world or community challenges build a student's capacity to discover relevance with what is being taught; a key consideration in building engagement.

In previous posts, I have advocated student voice as a vital component of building relationships and creating relevance. It is no different in assessing the degree of student engagement. Observing student behaviors is one-half of the equation. The other half is listening to them as they describe what they're doing, why they're doing it and how they are feeling through the process. Pull along side them and ask them questions similar to these. Or, assign one of these questions as an exit slip response. And then, lean in to their responses.

"What are you studying?"

"Why is this topic being explored?"

"Please explain what you're doing in this activity."

"Is this interesting to you? Why or why not?"

"What do you think you will do with this information?"

"What connections can you make between this activity and other things you have learned or have interest in?"

"Based on what you're learning, do you think you could teach this to someone else? How would. you go about it?"


Students will reveal the truth we are seeking in determining whether they are truly engaged. Their responses, or their uncomfortable silence, will tell us everything we need to know to effectively make any necessary instructional adjustments to assure that we are providing our learners with experiences they find both engaging and relevant.





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