The engagement problem

When I was a fairly new teacher, I remember a veteran teacher explaining to me:

If the kids are having fun all the time, the class is too easy.

And I believed it. I tried my best to make sure that when they were with me, they knew what it means to WORK. The students often remarked that I was tough but fair, and a good teacher. Some even thought I was their favorite.
Over the years, I started to realize that the more they had fun, the more they felt comfortable, and most importantly the more I loosened up, the harder they worked. Even harder than when I was trying to be “tough but fair.”
There is a certain issue surrounding engagement that is a carry-over from the olden days of teaching (not really long ago) that leads some teachers to believe that challenge and rigor needs to be accompanied by frustration and anxiety.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. What is the opposite of work? Most would say play. However, to paraphrase Dr. Jane McGonigal: The opposite of play is depression. Work and play are both productive, positive human behaviors that are often indistinguishable. When students enjoy the flow of learning, they are melding elements of both work and play. One is not exclusive to the other.
Teachers sometimes like to be the martyrs. They say things like “when I was in school, it was boring and we worked our butts off, and I still learned a lot.” That doesn’t mean that was the best way. It is just the environment that was available. Think any kid in that class would have shunned the opportunity to enjoy themselves a bit more? There is sometimes a pride in survival. I’d like to think educational experiences are more than simply survival. And what of those who do not survive? There is that sentiment out there as well, especially among high school teachers, that

“I set high standards, and it’s up to them to reach them.”

Actually, in public school, it’s up to the teacher. Not everyone REALLY embraces the idea of every student learning, but this is the promise of our profession. Every student learns. Ironically, the biggest variable in this is not IQ, parent support or money. It is engagement.
Too often engagement becomes a key measure of great teaching without a clear understanding of the best ways to be engaged. All engagement is not the same. Keeping kids busy may be engagement, but at a very low level. High-level engagement included intrinsic motivation, sense of wonder, curiosity, and enjoyment. In other words, fun.


We need to make high engagement a cornerstone of education. It’s a great time to do so. With rich technology tools, increasingly flexible learning spaces, and a whole big world to explore (even if virtually), there are fewer and fewer barriers to engagement!


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