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Issue 5, Spring 2010

Uganda Unpacked: A Mizungu Tale,
   Brian Delgado, Elika Dadsetan,
   & Nicole Pack
In the Circle, Janna Steffan
Engaging Students, David Price
How Do They Come Up With
   This Stuff?
, Sara Morgan
Disruptive Innovations
   in Schooling
, Michael Horn
Race and Ethnicity
   in an Integrated School
, Spencer Pforsich
Autobots in Action, Karl Wendt
Visions of Mathematics, Ben Daley
Judo Math, Dan Thoene
Family Mathers, Kristin Komatsubara
Writing About Math, Allison Cuttler
Going Gaga, Marc Shulman
The Agony and The Ecstasy
   (of Math)
, Jean Kluver

1: Bilingual Spoken Word
2: Children’s Astronomy Book Project
3: The Sangak{You} project
4: Geometric Mural Project
5: Physics A to Z
6: Philosopher Shrines Salon Night
7: Urban Homesteading Project
8: Illuminated Journals
9: The Hidden Garden



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Engaging Students

Learning Futures, funded by the UK’s Paul Hamlyn Foundation, works with schools in the United Kingdom that are rethinking and restructuring their programs to incorporate a more hands-on, community-involved approach. The author describes preliminary findings and current thinking from this project, particularly in regard to engagement as a sine-qua-non of student achievement.

“We are in a position where we have to create engaging work for kids or we’re going to lose the battle for their hearts and minds. We have to be intentional about engagement.”

—Phillip Schlechty Centre for Engagement

In the Learning Futures program we have made student engagement the prime focus of our activities. In this we are not alone. Around the world, more attention is being paid to finding ways to tap into students’ interest in learning. The reasons are not hard to find. Whilst the past decade has seen an overall improvement in standardized test scores, more recently the upward performance trend has stalled. Furthermore, it is widely felt that the tough accountability framework, which has been at the centre of all policy initiatives, has largely served to exacerbate student disengagement.

The irony, for commentators like Alfie Kohn, is that invariably, “when interest appears, achievement usually follows” (2000, p. 128). Until recently, however, how teaching and learning actually happens and the importance of engagement and motivation were rarely of interest, just so long as results improved. We believe this is not simply a short-sighted strategy; it has fundamentally distorted the purpose of schooling.

The reasons behind disengagement are varied and complex, involving a host of social, familial and personal factors: poverty, low aspirations, mental and physical wellbeing, environmental and community factors, parental attitudes, etc. There are clear links between these factors and disengagement. However, discussions about disengagement rarely give prominence to the young person’s response to what is offered in school. It is almost as though we have accepted the inevitability of learning as a cold shower: you’re not expected to enjoy it, but it will do you good.

The focus upon trying to remedy the ill effects of disadvantage, through early intervention strategies, for example, are understandable and important. But they tend to concentrate upon the visibly disengaged: persistent truants, those with special educational or emotional needs, those with behaviour problems. However, as Sodha and Guglielmi (2009) note in a recent study, “...looking simply at active signs of disengagement would underestimate the extent of disengagement among children and young people who passively withdraw from their education, by withdrawing cognitively or emotionally.”

Additionally, there is often a false connection made between achievement and engagement. We have recently seen a large number of students becoming disengaged achievers, performing well academically, keeping out of trouble, but rejecting further and higher education.

What Do We Mean By Engagement?

“Much of the discourse... has been about disengagement on adult terms; engagement as defined by politicians, policy makers, and perhaps some teachers and parents. But tackling disengagement effectively means taking the time to understand what children and young people themselves find engaging... placing student voice at the centre of what they do.”

—Sodha & Guglielmi, 2009, p. 25

Identifying and measuring engagement is often fraught with difficulty. A multitude of studies testify to the often confusing and overlapping nature of definitions. Despite this, in recent years, a consensus has emerged on the conceptual basis of engagement. Three elements, initially viewed in isolation, but recently seen more holistically, have become widely accepted:
  • Thinking/Cognitive
  • Feeling/Emotional/Affective
  • Acting/Behavioural/Operative

Variants to this exist, but there is agreement around models that seek to identify and measure how students think, feel and act in school.

The three-legged stool model most commonly adopted (cognitive, emotional and behavioural) is geared around directing the question “Are you engaged?” to the student only. Our belief, from the outset, has been that we are only likely to see deep, authentic and motivated learning when the responsibility for engagement lies with a broader set of partners, all seeking to support learning—a ‘done with’, rather than ‘done to’ approach. We need to aim not only for engaged students, but also for engaged schools.

A second problem with the traditional model of engagement stems from its predominantly instrumental applications: engagement as a vehicle to improve student performance or discipline within school. Inevitably, such a mindset constrains success indicators within a compliance model. Students are deemed to be engaged, for example, when/if they:

  • attend regularly
  • conform to behavioural norms
  • complete work in the manner requested and on time
  • are ‘on-task’
  • respond to questioning

If we have greater aspirations for students—beyond compliance and toward a commitment to lifelong learning—then the conventional concept of engagement is inadequate.

Re-Framing Engagement

“If you’re not given the opportunity to do something, you kind of feel that there’s no point, because it wasn’t your choice.... If you’re not given a say, then you kind of feel invalid.... I think that a lot of students would feel that kind of breaks their confidence as well.”

—Learning Futures student

Our working definition of deep engagement, developed in consultation with our students, is that it is learning which occurs when the learner:
  • cares not just about the outcome, but also the development, of their learning
  • takes responsibility for their learning
  • brings discretionary energy to their learning task(s)
  • can locate the value of their learning beyond school, and wishes to prolong their learning beyond school hours

If these are the learner dispositions we strive for, what then are the keys that can trigger deep engagement and motivation? By examining the designs for learning in our partner schools (in both curriculum and pedagogy), we have observed deep engagement when one or more of the following characteristics is built in to the experience. That is to say, where learning is:

  • Placed: it reaches, and has relevance to, students in the space that they inhabit, connecting with the student’s family/community and interests outside school

  • Purposeful: it absorbs the student in actions of practical or intellectual value, fosters a sense of value and agency, and invites students to behave as proto-professionals

  • Pervasive: it extends beyond examinations, is supported by family and peers, and can be extended through independent (and inter-dependent) informal learning

  • Principled: it appeals to the student’s passions or moral purpose—it matters to students

Whilst this framework is still a work-in-progress, we are hopeful that it not only leads us to a richer and more sophisticated understanding of engagement, but that it will help guide the design of learning (or the co-design of learning with students).

Engagement in Practice

How can deeply engaging learning be realised? What conditions are needed? What are the signs that it is happening?

Pedagogic Conditions for Engagement
Of prime importance, perhaps, is the inescapable requisite of a productive, mutually respectful relationship between learner and significant adult (the term teacher is incomplete in a context where mentors, community experts or project commissioners may also have a close relationship with the student). In interviews with students at our partner schools, there was a strong correlation between enjoyment of learning and strong adult relationships. Being known by a teacher—no mean feat in a high school of over 1500 students—had a clear impact on student attitudes about learning. Students identified qualities such as trust, affirmation and challenge as key aspects in building their engagement and commitment.

While project-based learning and activities that go beyond school can be liberating for staff and students, it is important that activities incorporate a sense of bounded freedom—that students are given a clear set of guidelines, procedures or protocols within which they can make choices. As one Year 9 student put it: “I’d like to have a little bit more of a say, but...I think you need the teacher there to sort of guide you.”

Our students are highly vocal about the importance of hands-on, active learning. At the heart of such experiences is the promotion of practical, scaffolded inquiry. Here the concept of reverse engineering can be helpful. By starting at the end—with what students would need to have done, or what knowledge they would need to have acquired—a series of learning challenges can be designed, within which students can be free to explore and learn from their mistakes.

The fourth condition becoming apparent is for teachers to have a flexible repertoire of classroom strategies and ‘ways of being’, which include coaching and mentoring colleagues, coupled with a shared commitment to teachers as collaborative learners. Most schools, ironically, tend not to be effective learning communities for adults or students. External pressures and embedded structural conditions—the privacy of the classroom, the segregation of subject departments, the workload demands—help ensure that innovative practice often stays locked within a single teacher or department.

Recognizing Deep Engagement
Indicators of engagement are much discussed and rarely agreed upon. Is a student gazing out the window bored or grappling with a creative conundrum? Was the student who handed work in, correct and on time, enthused about the task or ‘getting it out of the way’?

We anticipate that our attempt to identify signs of deep engagement might be contestable. Nevertheless, if we are advocating pedagogies that motivate and inspire, we have a responsibility to describe their impact. Quantitatively, we are testing a survey that measures engagement before and after interventions based on student self-reports; we currently only have pre-intervention data. Qualitatively, through interviews and observations, the emerging picture is clearer. We are witnessing striking examples and articulations of highly committed and engaged learners, who usually display some of the following characteristics:

Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. It is rare, however, to see such depth of absorption in school-based work. Munns and colleagues (2006) at the University of Western Sydney (2006) have quantified the difference as being in-task, not just on-task. Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to continue beyond the end of a lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had ended—what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described as being in ‘‘flow’’.

Students display persistence, even in difficulty: a deeply engaged student becomes confident in their own ability to succeed, through persistence. As one student put it, “You’ve got to figure it out for yourself ‘cos if people just told you, you’d just find it an easy life, but life is full of obstacles and stuff, and you’ve got to work through them yourself and make your own mistakes.”

Students’ learning leaks out of school: a student may frequently choose to continue with a task or project beyond school—at home or elsewhere, with friends or alone.

Students are able to positively connect their learning: deeply engaged students often display expert characteristics—especially if they are engaged in project or inquiry learning. They begin to think and act like scientists or engineers, and can independently connect learning from one context to another. In the words of another interviewee, “I make links between everything, so I can tell a story, or relate it to something that happened, and that’s how I really learn.” This adaptive competence, the ability to construct and contextualize their own learning, is in sharp contrast to the bite-size knowledge acquisition that typifies much of current conventional pedagogy.

The frustration is that few of these characteristics are assessed or valued by a test-score dominated system, despite being highly sought after by both employers and higher education.

Assessing for Engagement
The recognition of assessment as an integral part of the learning process demands that we challenge conventional models of assessment that neither assess engagement nor engage students in the assessment process—and many do neither.

In our Learning Futures schools we attempt to foster motivational, authentic and deep learning, so we naturally favor project and inquiry-based learning, or applied learning situations. Teachers describe the tension in trying to apply school-bound, teacher-led, grade-dominated assessment regimes to experiences that are invariably more integrative, outward facing and intrinsically motivating.

Our challenge, therefore, lies in applying the same matrix of placed, purposeful, pervasive and principled learning throughout the assessment process. If student work engages local communities and businesses, then it follows that assessors should also be drawn from those groups. If we seek more independence and interdependence (through collaborative projects), then more self and peer assessment should follow, both summatively and formatively. If we seek to make learning more pervasive, through, for example, internet and media technologies, then video diaries uploaded onto YouTube should be as valid as written journals.

The use of public presentations or exhibitions at the conclusion of student work is already proving popular. These events not only provide an authentic and motivational spur for students to self-assess, they also act as an important social and community cohesive, attracting large audiences of family, community and business members.


For too long, those who develop educational policies have viewed learner engagement as an added bonus, only considered after compliance and achievement are in place. It is our contention, however, that those students who are considered disruptive or failing—or indeed those who have achieved passively—have, more often than not, disengaged from the process they are being put through. We have seen many students who appear to come back to life once the learning activities presented to them reflect their passions, principles and hidden abilities. At Learning Futures, we are still trying to discover what practices are likely to trigger a transformation of students’ attitudes toward learning and schooling. But already we know one thing: that having students engaged and excited about their learning is far too important to be considered a mere happy accident of schooling, and far too central to be ignored in our assessment of teaching, learning, and schools.

A fuller account of Learning Futures’ findings on engagement will be available to download in April 2010, from:


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990).
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York:
Harper and Row.

Kohn, A. (2000).
The Schools of Children Deserve. New York: Mariner Books.

Munns, G., Lawson, J., O’Brien, M. & K. Johnson (2006).
Student Engagement and the Fair Go Project. In School Is For Me: Pathways to Student Engagement. Sydney, Australia: Priority Schools Programs, NSW Department of Education and Training.

Sodha, S, & Guglielmi, S., DEMO (2009).
A Stitch In Time: Tackling Educational Disengagement. Retrieved January 4, 2009, from