“Children’s interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socio-economic background.”

Joan Abbott-Chapman et al (2013)

Engagement in learning and engagement at school lead to significant impact for achievement.

It sounds so simple and it is proven by research: you cannot learn if you are not engaged.  Engagement is aligned with Interest and Involvement as well as Motivation, Concentration and Focus.

The Menzies Research Institute in Tasmania recently released a paper (June 2013) that tracked the success of workers over nearly 30 years from their schooling back in 1985. It found “liking” school was more important than the grades you achieved.

Instead of believing solely in the teacher motivating learners – which places the onus on the teacher as a ‘coach’, educators need to instigate in learners a compelling desire. A learner with a compelling desire is attentive, focused on the task, and has taken ownership of learning new things – they have made a commitment willingly.

Engagement in learning is focus – creating and maintaining interest.  It replaces distraction. At times, there needs to be intensive focus – and these are learning moments that develop concentration and on-task commitment.  Concentrating is focusing and staying on task. The higher capacity learners will be those who can pay attention in lessons for lengthy periods. Lower level students will be the fiddlers and those who get bored quickly – but be aware that they may have a different, more-favoured learning style.  Dreamers are often poor at concentrating in class, but can rate highly in the creativity category.

Concentration is a lot shorter than we expect in learners. Low level students are commonly off task and can, therefore, become distractive.

Engagement is defined in three areas:

  1. Operative engagement – working productively to be an active participant in learning opportunities and school activities in order to develop the behaviours, habits and skills essential for high performance.
  2. Affective engagement – feeling positive about school, classrooms, teachers and peers.  This is about developing a sense of belonging, where students feel included and emotionally connected with others.
  3. Cognitive engagement – thinking with determination and willingness to tackle challenges purposefully.  This is about feeling confident in order to be flexible and open to failing forward.  Cognitive engagement is accepting mistakes and confusion are at times key parts of the learning process.

How do you engage a student?  Listen to them.  When was the last time you asked a learner what they wanted to learn – rather than tell them what they needed to know? Do teachers know every student’s interest?

Engagement is malleable and can be easily affected by changes in the practice of teachers and school leaders.

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

– Haim Ginnott

Strategies for Engaging Students:

  • Use a timer – such as an egg-timer – to steadily increase the time on task focus.  Have a student track their time on-task by referencing a clock in the room – and working out how long they are staying focused.
  • Goal setting – have students set clear goals and then have a time when they reflect on their ambition.
  • Morning organisation time – before starting the day, have a short period of time to orientate and explain what is scheduled for the day and week.