Robyn Jackson


Washington, DC

Interests: Professional...

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5 Myths About Engagement

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We hear a lot about student engagement. Everyone, it seems, believes that it’s the key to, well, just about everything. If students aren’t engaged, they argue, then they cannot learn. I tend to agree… to a point. Student engagement is very important, yes, but I am not sure that we’re all that clear on what true engagement really is. In fact, many teachers and administrators I talk to tend to buy into one or more of the five myths about student engagement. Read on below to see if you’ve taken any of these myths as fact and get a free TIP sheet that can help you tell the difference between a kid who is merely entertained vs. engaged.

Myth One: An engaged kid is an attentive kid
It is a mistake to think that just because a student is tracking you with his eyes or nodding when you speak that the student is actually engaged in his learning. How many times have you feigned attentiveness in a workshop or a meeting when your mind was really a million miles away? Just because a student seems attentive doesn’t necessarily signal that she is actually engaged. What’s more, real engagement often looks inattentive as students are so consumed by their work that they are not paying attention to you.

Myth Two: An engaged kid is an obedient kid
We often think that if a student is truly engaged, he or she will do exactly as we say. Sometimes students can get so engaged in the work that they are not ready to stop when you call “time!” They may want to continue their small group conversations long after you’ve instructed them to come to order. Or, they may not want to do the assignment exactly the way that you prescribe. If students are truly engaged in the work, they will own the work and that means that they may not always follow instructions.

Myth Three: An engaged kid is a productive kid
We often think that an engaged kid will produce the work we want when we want it. But students who are truly engaged may not follow the directions or turn in their work on time. They may want more time to figure out a problem or be reluctant to let the work go until they have gotten it completely “right.” They may get so interested in one part of an assignment that they neglect the other parts. You cannot judge a student's engagement by their productivity. A truly engaged student may be so engrossed in the work that she isn’t as productive as a student who is just trying to get the assignment done as quickly as possible.

Myth Four: An engaged kid is a polite kid
Many teachers think that engaged students are polite – waiting for their turn before speaking, sharing, and honoring social norms. But a student who is truly engaged in the learning may be so anxious to share that she doesn’t wait her turn before speaking or is loath to give up an activity just because it is someone else’s turn. An engaged student may be so engrossed in the learning that he skips many of the niceties and social norms. While it is important that students are polite to each other and to you, politeness isn’t a sign of true engagement. By the same token, a nice, orderly classroom of students may not be a sign that students are truly engaged.

Myth Five: An engaged kid is an excited kid
Sometimes, we think that in order to get students really engaged, we have to find some fun activity or some cool demonstration. We think that is the only way to capture and hold their interest. But be careful. There is a difference between a kid who is engaged and one who is merely entertained. A student may get excited about an activity and still not be engaged in the learning.

Do you find that you hold any of these myths as fact? We have all done it at some point.
It’s not that we don’t want students who are attentive, obedient, productive, polite and excited. These are admirable qualities to develop in every students. It’s just that the absence of presence of these qualities does not tell us students are truly engaged in the learning. And without further adieu, here is your TIP sheet with more on engagement vs. entertainment.

Also be on the lookout for my latest book, co-authored with Allison Zmuda, called Real Engagement: How Do I Help My Students Become Motivated Confident and Self-Directed Learners. This book explains the four keys to real engagement. It will be available May 14, 2015.


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23 Apr 15, 10:48 AM

Thanks for this post and unpacking the term "engagement," which is too often tossed around without any deep thinking about what it actually means. I've found several keys to engagement: interdisciplinary content; authentic connections to students' lives, communities and cultures; and (as John pointed out in the comment below), meaningful projects. At Creative Change, we've been helping schools apply those approaches to redesign courses and curriculum, resulting in big achievement gains. Examples and links to resources:

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23 Apr 15, 05:06 PM

Thanks so much for your comment. Love your thoughts!

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John Larmer

22 Apr 15, 12:57 PM

At the Buck Institute for Education we talk a lot about student engagement in the context of project based learning, and we agree with your critique of those myths. When students are working on a rigorous, relevant project, their hearts and minds are engaged - and the classroom doesn't look like a bunch of quiet students sitting in rows listening politely to a teacher all the time.

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23 Apr 15, 05:07 PM

Exactly, John. It may not look like we (or others) want it to look like!

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Andrew Frishman

22 Apr 15, 11:29 AM

Thank you for sharing these insightful observations. They resonate for me with the approach to student engagement described by Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski in "Student Engagement: It's Deeper than you think" - ... Also, I recommend that folks check out the 10 Expectations - - curious to hear other readers' thoughts?

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23 Apr 15, 05:10 PM

Thanks for your comment, Andrew. Loved the video of student expectations!

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