Monday / April 22

Choosing Investment Over Engagement 

The word “engagement” has quickly become yet another cotton candy buzzword in education—sweet, desirable, and inoffensive, but offering little in terms of substance or sustenance. After all, it’s hard to argue against the idea that students should be awake and focused on their learning in school. Despite its universality, there are different interpretations of what “engagement” means, depending on your pedagogical predilections.  

For some, engagement summons to mind images of frenetic energy and fun—students bounce around the room debating, discussing, experimenting, and learning together. The curriculum is only limited by their curiosity. They are center stage. They have control of their learning. For others, engagement is a “did-a-pin-just-drop?” classroom where every student is silently and attentively immersed in the content. These students are cognitively engaged. Here, typically, the teacher is center stage, instructing them using methods to help maximize student retrieval of a set, define curriculum. It’s easy to make a snap judgement about which of these perspectives is superior, but I believe both of these classrooms have equal potential to be a classroom rich with meaning or devoid of purpose. 

Instead of focusing on whether or not students are engaged, what if we assessed whether or not they are invested? 


A quick Google search of the term suggests that investment is defined “as devote(ing) (one’s time, effort, or energy) to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.” This is what I strive for in my classroom. Whether my students are furiously scribbling sketchnotes while I lecture or Gamestorming their next multimodal project while I facilitate, I work to ensure they know why the knowledge and skills they’re acquiring matter. 

Though I agree that methodology matters deeply, I can’t help but wonder if we get so caught up in debating the delivery methods of our content that we don’t stop and consider the utility of that knowledge beyond the next test or project. Regardless of whether or not they have fun learning it, how many students see the purpose of the content we task them with learning? In order to get our students to invest in their learning, we can no longer content ourselves with offering vague, paternalistic axioms about the “importance of doing things you don’t like” or creating quirky, new delivery methods for decontextualized factoids. Both of these approaches present content as bitter medicine that must be tolerated instead of wisdom nuggets with actual utility. It’s hardly surprising that students come to see learning as a game to be hacked or a sentencing they must endure.  

Making Learning Relevant 

If we want our students to invest in their learning, we must give them a reason to do so. We must consider how what we teach them can be applied beyond the walls of our classroom. An educator seeking to create a culture of investment can deliver a lecture that contains insight in to problems students are facing at home or in their community—or create an interactive game supplying the same wisdom. In a classroom where students are invested, no one has to ask, “Why are we learning this?” because purpose is baked into the DNA of the course. 

What matters is that students know that what they’re learning can help them make sense of our complex world and their chaotic teenage lives. It’s learning that has utility beyond their next retrieval test or design sprint. It’s learning that transcends academia and integrates itself into student’s lived experiences. If you’ve seen the emerging research on Generation Z, it’s clear that our curriculum, now more than ever, must supply sense and meaningmaking opportunities for our students. Considering they carry around the entirety of human knowledge and millions of hours of entertainment in their pockets, do they really need more isolated facts or shallow entertainment? I wonder how school would change if we framed and uncovered curriculum in ways that provided wisdom and experiences they can’t get from their devices. 

The instructional goals and resulting methods teachers employ are contextual. Our desire to see purpose in our daily lives and make meaning of our experiences is not. It’s universal. It’s the most human thing there is. It’s what we must tap into in order to get our students invested in their learning. This shift doesn’t require a curricular revolution, billions of funding, or a fundamental reimagining of school (though I’m amenable to those things) either. 

Three Simple Strategies 

  1. Familiarize yourself with students’ funds of knowledge through relationship building, informal dialogue, and qualitative data collection. By knowing our students interests and passions, we can create more intersections between what they know and what we want them to learn.
  2. Activate and leverage those funds so students are able to integrate the new knowledge from your course in to their pre-existing schema. This will scaffold their understanding, help them retrieve learning, and develop deeper understanding.
  3. Embed, explore, and frame your content in a variety of authentic problems and contexts to help build student expertise and promote transferThis will help students see how their learning can be applied in unique situations inside and outside the classroom. 

Conceptual understanding and learning transfer have provided me with a framework and suite of tools to implement these strategiesThey allow me to construct curriculum and objectives that seek to build a schema superhighway between student’s seemingly distant neighborhoods of knowledge. It helps me provide them with meaning and sensemaking frameworks that help them navigate new, complex texts and situations beyond my curriculum. When content becomes integrated with our student’s lived experiences, every new situation has the potential to be a context for learning and sense-making. 

Organizing curriculum around broader, transferable concepts and reframing content in ways that integrate students prior knowledge is the key. I still have plenty of work to do to ensure my classroom is a place where all students are invested, but now I feel like I have the tools to do so.  

Whether you’re a gameification guru or a stand and deliver diehard, I think it’s worth it to consider ways you can center purpose and meaning making in your classroom. It takes some time, but the returns I’ve received have been well worth the effort. 

Written by

Trevor Aleo is a high school English teacher in Prince William County, Virginia with a passion for literacy and design. In addition to leading grade level teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virgina Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and regional conferences. He believes education should help people become better meaning makers, problem solvers, and story tellers and is dedicated to facilitating learning experiences where that can happen. Both his classroom teaching and professional development leverage new, innovative methods to tackle teaching’s oldest questions. He tweets and writes about his journey at @MrAleoSays and

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