Let’s Talk About Student Engagement…Realistically.

The word “engagement” is all the rage right now in the education world.  Peruse a few education websites and you will find articles that cover every aspect of engagement, from engaging students in the classroom to engaging teachers in professional development to engaging all stakeholders  in the strategic plans of the school. Engagement is good, but it isn’t new.  Good as well as great educators have always been aware of the need for student engagement in the learning process.  Good as well as great teachers have always made valid attempts to engage as many students as possible in their classrooms by offering a variety of experiences so that all students can find something to like or interest them at some point in the course.  Sometimes, when the education world focuses on a new hot topic like student engagement, however, it seems like some people forget this.  I also think they sometimes find themselves with unrealistic expectations about what something like student engagement looks like in the real classroom.

Think about a time when you were required as part of your job to attend a workshop or seminar, perhaps with several different sessions and speakers.  Were you fully engaged throughout the entire day, or did some topics and speakers catch your attention more than others?  Did the topics and speakers that held your attention hold everyone else’s attention equally?  Did you find that the same speaker engaged you sometimes and not others?  I’m assuming the answer to these questions is yes.  Guess what?  It’s the same for students.  Students are required as part of their job (i.e. being a student) to attend classes that cover different subjects and are presented by different teachers.  Student engagement waxes and wanes throughout any given day, and no two students are exactly alike in terms of what they find engaging.  The same teacher can engage the same student some days and not others.  This is real life; this is how the brain really works.

The idea that teachers can engage all students all the time is simply unrealistic.  But for argument’s sake, let’s say we somehow could do this.  Let’s say we could somehow find a way to engage all students all the time.  Is this beneficial for our students?  You might be thinking, Of course!  How could one argue otherwise?  Well, I think I can.  If at least some part of high school education is preparing students for college and career, then we need to prepare them for how to proceed when they find themselves in an environment that is not personally engaging to them because it is bound to happen. Teaching students how to proceed when they find themselves in a situation that they don’t find personally interesting is teaching them a life skill that they need to succeed.  Teaching them that, while they do not have to find something to love in every situation in which they find themselves, they do have to work within a certain framework is important – finishing assignments even when they don’t like them, showing respect to their teachers and classmates even when they are bored, following rules even when they don’t agree.  These are important life skills.  No class and no career that I know of is engaging 100% of the time, but walking away from a class or career every time one’s brain isn’t fully firing on all cylinders won’t get anyone very far in this life.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  As I said at the beginning of this post, all good teachers want to engage their students, and they constantly try to find ways to reach as many students as possible.  This is a great and worthy goal.  My dispute is with those who argue that all students can be engaged all the time or that this is a proper goal to have anyway.  I would rather see engagement in education as a dual responsibility – the teacher has a responsibility to engage as many of her students as possible, but students also have a responsibility to attempt to engage themselves, especially as they reach high school and college. Furthermore, students have a responsibility to work within a framework even when they are not fully engaged.

I leave you with this quotation that I used to have posted in my classroom: “Very often, a change of self is needed more than a change of scene.”

Postscript:  This just came to me.  It’s also useful for students to learn when they can disengage and when they can’t.  Sometimes we humans need a little downtime, a little time to rejuvenate.  If we are constantly engaged, we can’t do this.  Do you ever disengage on purpose for awhile?  I know I do.  Knowing when and how to do this is a skill that students need to learn as well.  Disengaging and re-engaging is both useful and necessary.

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