Engagement Isn’t Everything

The contrarian in me bristles whenever any idea achieves such widespread acceptance that those who dare question it are subjected to reflexive condemnation. One idea that has gained such universal popularity in recent years is the power of engagement. Spend any time among educators, whether in person or in digital form, and you will surely hear the following sentiments passionately expressed:

  • Kids are bored because teachers’ lessons aren’t engaging.
  • Kids act out when they’re not engaged.
  • Kids cheat because the work isn’t engaging.
  • An engaged student will never give you any problems.
  • Kids hate school because they’re not engaged.

So at the risk of being ridiculed by the Engagement-is-Everything crowd, let me say that I’m skeptical.

We’re asking engagement to pull an awful lot of weight.

It’s the Wrong Word

First, let’s clear up some terminology. People who talk about engagement are often not talking about engagement. Engagement means that a student cares, that she gives a damn. Engagement ultimately comes from the learner, not the teacher. I don’t care a whit about needlepoint, and it won’t matter how much choice I’m given, how much technology gets incorporated, whether or not I get to work with my friends, how enthusiastic my needlepoint teacher is, or how much relevance she attempts to convince me needlepoint has to my life, I’m just not going to be engaged.

When some people talk about engagement, what they’re really talking about is involvement. Anita Archer, the Guru of Engagement, uses all kinds of involvement techniques that have been mislabeled engagement strategies. She keeps a brisk pace and requires a high rate of response from every student in the room. She expects attention and participation. She keeps kids on their toes. But none of those things ensure that students care about what she’s teaching; only that they’re involved. Anita Archer doesn’t do engagement. She does involvement.

The Student Owns the Learning

Perhaps that’s because Ms. Archer understands that true engagement cannot come from her. She can get students to actively participate in her vocabulary lessons, but she can’t make them care about learning the words. She can lead the horse to the very edge of the creek, but she can’t make it dip its head to drink.

The problem I have with engagement — at least, how it’s used today — is that it conveys the message that a student’s failure is his teacher’s fault.

  • It’s not a student’s fault for failing to do his job; it’s his teacher’s fault for failing to engage him.
  • It’s not a student’s fault for skipping class; it’s her professor’s fault for not making her lectures more engaging.
  • It’s not the salesman’s fault he didn’t sell anything; he just didn’t find the act of selling very engaging.
  • It’s not the teacher’s fault for showing videos all day; she just doesn’t feel engaged at work.

It’s bull.

There’s also this problem: What’s engaging for one student isn’t for another. I often see teachers on Twitter bragging about how hip they are because they incorporated fidget spinners or Pokemon Go or [insert current trendy item] into their lesson plans. But for every student who thinks a particular toy, game, or song is the greatest, there’s another who’s turned off by it.

For every student who thinks a particular toy, game, or song is the greatest, there’s another who’s turned off by it.

The Real Secret to Success

Here’s an unfortunate truth about life:

There are things we must all do even though they are not engaging. Those of us who do these things have more success in life than those who do not.

People who create and adhere to budgets have more money. Making and sticking to budgets requires self-control. Few would argue it’s engaging.

Buying groceries is almost always an awful experience, but if you don’t do it, you end up at McDonald’s, wasting money and getting fat.

Sitting through meetings requires self-discipline, and your boss may or may not care to make those meetings engaging. You better pay attention anyway.

Doing your taxes sucks. The government makes no attempt to make the process engaging. And if you decide to not file your taxes, you won’t be able to blame the government for failing to sufficiently inspire you. Sometimes, you just have to do things.

In fact,

Much of life — pretty much everything between all the awesome, engaging parts — is about self-discipline, the ability to stick with or do something well enough even though we dislike the task or find it boring.

Not Everything Needs to Engage

I’ve got nothing against making your lessons more fun or finding ways to involve your students more. There is no question that an involved student will usually learn more than an uninvolved one. Use whatever tricks you can. You can do a whole lot worse than Anita Archer when it comes to involvement.

Nor will I try to dissuade you from creating experiences for students that give them warm fuzzies, create indelible memories, and make you the kind of teacher students remember for the rest of their lives. Go for it. That’s what makes teaching and learning fun.

But let’s stop putting so many eggs in the engagement basket. Students who learn to do what needs to be done, regardless of how they feel about it, grow up to be adults who have the self-discipline to balance their checkbooks, do the laundry, get out of bed early enough to make it to work on time, get the oil in their car changed, shop for khaki pants (just me?), and clean everything from their teeth to their dishes to their toilets.

Instead of focusing so much on engagement — an endeavor that is, at best, a crap shoot — why not teach students what self-control looks like in different situations? Why not teach students that people with self-control lead more successful lives? Why not show them how to exercise self-control through talk-alouds and modeling? Why not even intentionally teach something that’s not engaging at all and explain to kids that successful people must sometimes will themselves to complete uninspiring tasks?

We don’t do students any favors when we send the message that they must always be entertained. And we’re sending our teachers the wrong message when we imply that every problem in their classroom comes back to their inability to engage their students.

We don’t do students any favors when we send the message that they must always be entertained.

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