Engagement is not a goal

Litter - McDonalds

A few years ago, a Yale study showed that young children preferred food, even carrots and milk, wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper over the same food without branding. It’s a clear win for marketing!

In education, we tend to hear news like this as a reason to try to wrap a layer of relevance around lessons, like adding hip hop lyrics to word problems and hoping kids are fooled into liking math more.  The hope is that superficial graphics, popular references, or high tech gadgets will result in student “engagement.”

The confusion of “engagement” as a primary goal of lesson design is a mistake. Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of doing interesting, personally meaningful work.

The idea that children are swayed by marketing messages should not be a call to educators to use the same tactics, but to provide children with deep exposure to ideas so that they can see past marketing sleight of hand.

Children should be taught to analyze marketing messages — but they should also learn about food, make food, and grow food. They need time to taste it, to feel it, and to see a flower change into a pea pod. Eventually they will make better choices about their own food. (Then they will read the calorie counts on the menu and annoyingly recite them to you when you are trying to enjoy a Bloomin’ Onion. But I digress…)

Children should also have the opportunity to live and learn with technology that puts them in control. Control does not mean pushing a button or clicking on the right answer. Control means using open-ended tools that allow for meaningful interaction with data, people, ideas, and concepts. It means programming and simulations. It means making, not consuming. It means giving students agency and responsibility for their work.

Students may be momentarily entertained by technology used to wrap a stale activity, but it won’t last.


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8 Replies to “Engagement is not a goal”

  1. Sylvia, I would agree that personally meaningful learning is paramount goal to engagement, but is engagement just a by-product personally meaningful work, or can it also be a design element in creating an learning environment or negotiating a project with a student, as well? Is it unnecessary?

    There are a bevy of marketing messages that might lead to engagement, but “engagement” is not any one strategy. Is there something amiss in scaffolding for engagement or fun?

    Moreover, shouldn’t students develop some metacognition about what makes work engaging for them – shouldn’t they be aware of what puts them into a state of flow, for good and/or ill?

    I’m with you in demanding that we help students find work that amounts to more than a superficial engagement with a gimmick, but I worry that when we dismiss engagement, we make it okay for ourselves to let learning be joyless, which is not what I read in your encouragement to find personally meaningful work that lets students control their learning.

    All the best,

  2. Hi Chad – I hope it’s clear I’m not advocating joyless learning. I do think that there’s a lot of emphasis about how technology is engaging in and of itself – not as part of creating a learning environment.

  3. Very well put “Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of doing interesting, personally meaningful work.” I get really exasperated at the argument the we need the latest in technology to get today’s 21st century student engaged. I teach science and woodworking and in the woods classes they are 90% on task 90% of the time using technology that essentially hasn’t changed since the early 1900’s. I have to yell at them to stop working when the period ends. I think the emphasis on technology to engage is a fool’s errand, in that the latest technology a school gets is quickly outdated by the technology the student brings from home in the form of their newest smart phone or Wii.

  4. I liked your post; I never thought of it that way but I can definitely see your point. I think of engagement as an opportunity to show kids relevance, make connections, and find importance in the material being taught. Not every lesson is necessarily “engaging” by the standards addressed in your post, meaning it doesn’t come wrapped in gimmicks designed to trick the kids into liking math (although sometimes I do enjoy doing that). For me it’s just keeping the kids attention without compromising the integrity of the content.

    I really liked your points though because I feel like many times I find myself more concerned in classroom management/engagement than the content; but I also need to remember my demographics and that often times my content won’t get delivered if it’s only offered via direct instruction or as learning for the sake of learning.

    Thanks for the post, it’s a good reminder that I teach math and getting the kids engaged in some cases is necessary but is not the objective of the lesson.

  5. Hi Sylvia! When we met at ISTE I knew I found a kindred spirit! It’s not about the technology in and of itself! And i know you are not advocating disengaged learning. Yet your blog post got me thinking. Since it’s about the learning and about the outcomes, how can we stop making assessment so disengaging? Is anyone doing some out of the box thinking on this?

  6. Perfect timing for your post.

    I recently presented to our PTSA about use of technology in my Spanish classroom. I started off by saying I do NOT use technology because it’s engaging. I think they were surprised at first but then happy to hear why I do use it and how it has helped us create a language learning environment I never could have accomplished without tools such as google apps, skype, edmodo & cell phones.

    I’m now helping our district distribute mini tech grants to many of our teachers. Most included the term “engagement” as part, or all, of their purpose in wanting technology for their classroom. Obviously, we want our kids engaged, but engaged how??? I do fear that the term engagement connected with tech is somehow more open-ended and not tied to learning as it is in other areas. As a Spanish teacher, making piñatas is an engaging activity but certainly not a solid learning objective leading to language proficiency. Maybe better defining the term engagement would help teachers rethink why they really want technology to “engage” their students and how technology may support their true learning goals. I also like the creating vs. consuming concept and plan to share this as a goal for our teachers who are granted some type of technology this fall. Thanks for your post.



  7. Sylvia,

    I have never liked the term engagement in reference to anything associated with teaching and learning. It has become a goal, and the thinking is that students who are “engaged” will be covertly learning something. Learning as a by-product of engagement.

    We have strayed so far from the purpose of being an educated person, that when asked what the goal or purpose of education is, you will find too many answers, thus the failure to achieve reform. I wonder if reform would even be necessary if we had not strayed from education’s intent.

    Anyway, I seek not to get my students engaged in anything in my class. I seek instead to get them involved in their world. Again, not exactly the goal of education, but demonstrating that changes happen when 13-year-olds get involved in the politics, environment, culture, or anything else in their community makes the classroom learning of benign standards at least palatable to middle school kids.


  8. This is probably one of the most clearly written, concise descriptions of what I think about when I hear the phrase “engaged learner.” What you describe is what I wish I could get across to our teachers, school board members, parents, and other administrators; it is the transformation I believe is needed in education. This portion in particular is why I believe we must invest in technology:
    “Control means using open-ended tools that allow for meaningful interaction with data, people, ideas, and concepts. It means programming and simulations. It means making, not consuming. It means giving students agency and responsibility for their work.”

    I wish I could figure out how to better communicate this philosophy. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with what I feel is a “runaway train” with technology initiatives and technology integration in my district and many others.

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