Sunday / May 19

To Engage or Not to Engage – Is That the Question?

There is a surfeit of blog posts devoted to the top (pick a number, any number) ways to engage modern students. Many offer tricks for teachers to engage today’s so-called “digitally savvy” students. Exhausted educators have tried all sorts of gimmicks in response to a question that has been asked of them ad nauseam, “What are you doing to engage your students?” We’ve been beseeched to become sideline guides over stage-bound sages, get smarter by trying harder, tell every child that he or she is a de facto genius, or entreated to teach like brigands. Far too often such wanton advice is accompanied by the hollow echo of evidence paucity. All of these noisy, evidence-free platitudes leave me wondering: when it comes to student engagement, are we asking right question?

Such entreaties suggest that engagement is something which can be foisted upon students by some external source—like a classroom teacher. Well, it can’t. Not sustainably, anyway. To be fair, it is quite difficult to identify or even define student engagement. The general litmus test of “I know it when I see it” doesn’t really work because, even to the trained observer, a student’s body language might countenance engagement during classroom discussions, meanwhile the child’s consciousness may be roaming freely across unrelated topical landscapes millions of miles away from the learning moment.

This conundrum was notably observed by renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2009) when he went looking for evidence of what he calls Flow in schools. Flow is a psychological state correlated with optimal human performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Flow is also a conceptual springboard from which I can attempt to articulate a more useful description of engagement: Authentic student engagement is the mindful and concentrated investment of a learner’s discretionary energy in successfully completing a challenging, yet worthwhile learning task (Magana, 2017). What’s implicit in my description is choice, the student’s perceived importance of the task, a proper level of difficulty—not too hard, yet not too easy—and immediate performance feedback that students gain throughout the entirety of the experience.

So where does one start? Well, perhaps the first step is to consider a premise that I’ve long investigated and observed in my classroom and in other research settings: young people care very deeply about the world they’ve inherited and, as such, are genuinely passionate about improving their world (Magana et al, 1993; Magana, 1994; Magana et al, 1996; Magana & Marzano, 2014; Magana, 2016; Magana, 2017).

If one accepts that premise as even partially true, then here’s a much better engagement question to ask, not of ourselves, but of our students: “What wicked problem matters to you, and what are you going to do about it?” (Magana, 2017).

A wicked problem is an existing problem that is marked by some constraint, is complex, ill-defined, ill-structured, intractable, and as yet unresolved (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Here’s the good and the bad news: there is no shortage of wicked, even existential, problems that matter to students. When given the opportunity, learners authentically engage themselves in the process of identifying, investigating, hypothesizing, and generating resolutions to wicked problems that matter to them.

In my latest book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education (Magana, 2017), I share my new framework for educational systems to build and maintain much-needed cultures of innovation. The T3 Framework for Innovation begins with what I call Translational Technology Use—the digitization of routine administrative teaching and learning tasks—through Transformational Technology Use—students’ use of digital tools to go beyond surface learning and engage in deeper learning and meaningful knowledge transfer—and culminates with Transcendent Technology Use—the type of knowledge transfer that goes above and beyond the expectations and limitations for which organized learning systems were originally designed 120 years ago. It is in the Transcendent Technology use stage where I provide step-by-step guidance, tools, and resources to help all educators unlock their students’ limitless passion for applying newly gained knowledge to solve wicked that matter to them.

The T3 Framework for Innovation offers learning systems an evidence-based signal to help all learners, from gifted students to our most vulnerable learners, recognize that they have unlimited potential to make a valuable contribution to improving their world. The T3 Framework is designed to invite students to joyfully invest their energy towards solving wicked problems that matter to them, and in so doing, unlocking their passion and purpose for limitless learning. Such an idea seamlessly adds the heart to the art and science of teaching.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Magana, S., Lovejoy, J., Nafissian, D., & Reynaud, G. (1993). The Washington schools change project: What happens when a modem is placed in classrooms. Olympia, WA: OSPI.

Magana, S. (1994). The Polar Project: A collaborative action research project on integrating telecommunications technology at ACES High School. Unpublished master’s thesis, City University, Seattle, Washington.

Magana, S., Henly, J., Murphy, M., Rayl, G., & Travis, J. (1996). The Illinois student project information network project report. Springfield: Illinois State Board of Education.

Magana, S. (2016). Enhancing the art and science of teaching with technology: A model for improving learning for all students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington.

Magana, S (2017). Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Magana, S., & Marzano, R. J. (2014). Enhancing the art and science of teaching with technology. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155– 169.

Written by

Dr. Sonny Magaña is an award-winning teacher, best-selling author, and pioneering educational technology researcher, trainer, and coach. Sonny is a highly sought-after educational strategist and speaker with more than thirty years’ experience guiding and assessing the transformation of learning systems with technology. The author of numerous research studies and articles, Sonny’s first book, Enhancing the Art and Science of Teaching with Technology, co-authored with Dr. Robert J. Marzano, achieved wide international acclaim. In his upcoming book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies, Sonny shares his new T3 Framework, which is designed to disrupt the current narrative about educational technology. The T3 Framework contextualizes technology use into distinct 3 stages: Translational, Transformational, and Transcendent. These stages distinguish the value added by educational technologies, from low to high value, in order to maximize the return on investment of technology tools within a modern teaching and learning context. Grounded in sound research and theory, the T3 Framework is designed to support how educational systems measure the ways classroom technologies are used to unleash student learning potential. A tireless advocate for equitable access to educational technology, Sonny founded and served as director of Washington State’s first CyberSchool in 1996, a groundbreaking blended learning program that continues to meet the needs of at-risk students in Washington. He is a recipient of the prestigious Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award and the Governor’s Commendation for Educational Excellence. Sonny holds a bachelor of science degree from Stockton University, a master of education degree from City University (where he was honored with the Presidential Award for meritorious scholarship), an educational administration endorsement, and a doctorate in educational leadership focused on modernizing adult learning from Seattle University. Follow Sonny on Twitter @sonnymagana

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