Saturday / May 25

Beware the Engagement Illusion

If teachers are pursuing the goal of 100% engagement, then every student is contributing.

In our new book, Confronting the Crisis of Engagement, Nancy Frey, Doug Fisher, and I explore why engagement is an essential ingredient for learning. A significant body of evidence, including the work of John Hattie and colleagues, shows that one of the most powerful tools in the teacher’s toolbox is feedback, provided that the feedback is specific, accurate, and timely. The problem in many classrooms, however, is that the use of this powerful tool depends upon student volunteers. The students who raise their hands already know the answer and asking them to recite what they already know is not learning. Meanwhile, the students who most need feedback remain mute, happy to let the students who raise their hands dominate the conversation. In this post, we first consider a precise definition of engagement, followed by implications for classroom observations and the impact of the post-COVID environment on it.

Defining Engagement

We define engagement as the mutually focused attention of students and teachers on curiosity, challenge, and learning. This definition has some important implications.

  • First, attention is mutual. No matter how brilliant the presentation, when the students appear to be paying attention to the teacher, but the teacher is not paying attention to 100% of the students, there is no engagement.
  • Second is the importance of curiosity – the admission by both students and teachers of what they do not know, accompanied by a genuine sense of wonder. This is the opposite of the typical situation in which the teachers ask questions, and a select few students know all the answers.
  • Third is challenge – the willingness of teachers to dialog with students who do not know the answers. Many teachers, especially at the secondary level, are unwilling to call on students who do not volunteer because they fear that the students will be embarrassed and humiliated. That is reflective of a climate of fear, and it is up to the teacher to create a fearless environment in which students who don’t know the answer can answer a question with a question, provide a partial answer, ask for a minute of think time, or “phone a friend”. But what they cannot do is simply check out and give all of the teacher-student feedback to students whose hands are in the air.
  • Finally, this definition of engagement depends upon learning. If our ultimate goal of every class is learning, then the process of learning depends upon trial and error, followed by teacher feedback, immediate application of that feedback, and students moving from self-doubt and disengagement to exploration and confident learning.

Implications for Classroom Observations

Administrators, instructional coaches, supervisors, and others who observe classrooms can unintentionally send mixed signals to the teachers they are observing. Many checklists used for classroom observations can undermine engagement.  “Is the teacher using technology?” Sometimes the appropriate answer is “No!” We have seen too many classrooms in which students have their headphones on, appear to be looking at screens, but a closer look reveals that the headphones are plugged into a device in the student’s pocket rather than the computer. Other checklists praise “group work,” and yet when we sit with the student groups, it quickly becomes apparent that one student is doing the work the three other students are dutifully filling out a worksheet.

By contrast, if teachers are pursuing the goal of 100% engagement, then every student is contributing. Some work alone, others in pairs, and others in groups. We have seen amazing teachers have students out of their chairs working out challenges – perhaps a math problem, compelling topic sentence, or explanation of a graph in science – by working on white boards or poster paper covering all four walls of the classroom.  This is visible learning in the most literal sense of the term. Students can support one another, and the teacher can provide real-time feedback, correcting thinking errors and having the satisfaction that the teacher’s feedback leads directly to student learning. These are exciting and deeply engaging learning environments will never happen if teachers fear that this appearance of chaos – students out of their chairs! – would be intolerable to observers who exercise a great deal of power over the retention and promotion of teachers.

The COVID Context

As students return from a year or more of isolation, there is clear and consistent evidence of learning loss and behavior regression. These challenges can lead teachers to focus on the imperative to deliver, deliver, deliver. “If they miss the rhombus problem on the state test, it won’t be my fault because I can document that I delivered that lesson on October 15th.” It’s up to educational leaders to stop the delivery myth and give teachers the time and discretion that they need to stop, check for understanding, and move from delivery to real engagement.  Engagement takes time. Engagement requires some risk – including the risk of calling on reluctant students who don’t know every answer. We cannot expect teachers to be courageous risk-takers if administrators, instructional coaches, and other people who observe classrooms do not support those teachers.

Engagement in Professional Learning

While everyone agrees that engagement is a good idea that is rarely implemented, the reality is that engagement failure starts in staff meetings and professional learning. There is more than a little irony in the scene in which the speaker in a staff meeting or professional learning conference is lecturing about the value of engagement without taking a breath, leaving genuine engagement as an afterthought. If we expect teachers to have more engaging classrooms, then leaders must stop the primitive practice of making announcements in staff meetings and devote their time to deliberation and dialog. One leader we know changed the tenor of meetings by making a commitment to ending each agenda item with a question mark rather than a period. It sends the not-so-subtle message that the purpose of the meeting is learning, not testimony. Similarly, we have seen professional learning shift from traditional workshops with the expert at the front to interactive coaching, placing the teachers and administrators as co-learners rather than passive recipients of information.

If we are to confront the crisis of engagement, then we must first define what engagement means, and then apply that definition to the way in which we conduct classroom observations, and the manner in which we conduct staff meetings and professional learning.

Written by

Dr. Douglas Reeves is the co-author of Confronting the Crisis of Engagement (Corwin Press, 2022) and more than forty other books and 100 articles.  Reeves can be reached at or @DouglasReeves.

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