Sunday, March 8, 2015

Engagement Does Not Always Equate to Learning

No matter where I am, whether it is a physical location or virtual, I am always hearing conversations about how technology can be used to effectively engage students.  This is extremely important as the majority of students spend six to eight hours a day in schools where they are completely disengaged. I for one can’t blame today’s learner for being bored in school when I all have to do is observe my own son at home playing Minecraft to see firsthand his high level of engagement.  His Minecraft experiences provide meaning and relevance in an environment that is intellectually stimulating, but more importantly fun. Schools and educators would be wise to take cues from the real world and make concerted efforts to integrate technology with the purpose to increase student engagement. Engagement, after all, is the impetus for learning in my opinion.

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Let’s take a closer look at defining what engagement really means from the Glossary of Education Reform:
"In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators." 
The last line in the description above elicits a great deal of concern for me.  With or without technology, there always seems to be a great deal of emphasis on student engagement, but the fact of the matter is that engagement does not necessarily equate to learning.  I have observed numerous lessons where students were obviously engaged through the integration of technology, but there was no clear indication that students were learning.  Having fun, collaborating, communicating, and being creative are all very important elements that should be embedded elements of pedagogically-sound lessons, but we must not lose sight of the importance of the connection to, and evidence of, learning. Thus, students can walk away from a lesson or activity having been very engaged, but still walk away with very little in the form of new knowledge construction, conceptual mastery, or evidence of applied skills. When speaking at events I often ask leaders and teachers how they measure the impact of technology on learning. More often than not I receive blank stares or an open admission that they have no idea. The allure of engagement can be blinding as well as misleading.

It is so important to look beyond just student engagement when it comes to technology. If the emphasis is on digital learning we must not get caught up in the bells and whistles or smoke and mirrors that are commonly associated with the digital aspect alone. Engagement should always translate into deeper learning opportunities where technology provides students the means to think critically and solve problems while demonstrating what they know and can do in a variety of ways. Technology should be implemented to increase engagement, but that engagement must lead to support, enhancement, or an increase in student learning. It should not be used as a digital pacifier or gimmick to get students to be active participants in class. With technology there should be a focus on active learning where students are doing.

Here are some questions that will assist in determining if engagement is leading to actual learning:

  • Is the technology being integrated in a purposeful way grounded in sound pedagogy?
  • What are the learning objectives/outcomes?
  • Are students demonstrating the construction of new knowledge? Are they creating a learning product/artifact?
  • How are students applying essential skills they have acquired to demonstrate conceptual mastery? 
  • What assessments (formative, summative) are being used to determine standard attainment?
  • How are students being provided feedback as to their progress towards the specific learning objectives/outcomes?
  • Is there alignment to current observation/evaluation tools?

Engagement, relevance, and fun are great, but make sure there is observable evidence that students are learning when integrating technology. Need more support? Participate and engage in Digital Learning Day 2015 on March 13. Digital Learning Day provides a powerful venue for highlighting great teaching practices while showcasing innovative teachers, leaders, and instructional technology programs that are improving student outcomes.  Follow along, grab some resources, and let’s move past engagement to ensure learning is taking place in our technology initiatives.


  1. "Engagement" is a word that tends to drive me nuts too. Just because kids are paying attention to the teacher speaking at the front of the classroom, it does NOT mean they are engaged. I wrote a post about cognitive engagement and what it should mean for the learning process. It runs along similar lines as your post. I'll take any thoughts regarding this, given your expertise.

  2. I really liked the video you had embedded in your post.

  3. I wonder which is more problematic... a high degree of engagement with questionable learning... or a low degree of engagement with questionable learning... Both happen in the classroom and both are problematic. However, I would guess that the latter is historically more common. Of course, the sweet spot here would be a high degree of engagement with a high degree of learning... the hard stuff - the art and science of teaching/learning. You're right, that too often, we focus on one or the other rather than both. I think the current obsession with curriculum packed, performance-based, standardized and high stakes assessments drive the low engagement scenario... and when we try to leverage new technologies and learning spaces in this climate, we get what someone referred to on NPR this morning as chocolate covered broccoli (sorry to anyone who loves broccoli). Or, using a phrase that Sarah Palin is so commonly know for, "put lipstick on a pig and you still have a pig". If learning with technology is to truly make a difference with both learning and engagement, we need to talk about transformative uses, spaces, and contexts, I think.

    By the way, those percentages on Dale's Cone are mostly myth and should be banned from any relationship with Bloom's Taxonomy.

  4. I agree and I feel like that is why learning targets have had such an impact on my teaching. They aren't novel concepts, but I felt before that I was always just picking lessons based on what was engaging. As I jumped from cool sounding activity to cool sounding activity (and as a social studies teacher, you have lots of options), I was just not focused enough on (or assessing) exactly what they were learning from it.

    I think engagement strategies should come after one has decided on the key learning targets.

  5. I would thoroughly agree with the sentiments of this article.Last year, the 2014 Naplan ICT literacy results were released. What it showed is that exposure to ICT for students does not create ICT capable students.This is the problem that many schools have. In Australia, the government has spent $2 billion on technology in the classroom. All that is good.However, the perception appears to be that if give access to students to the technology, it would suffice. Yes, technology is great for motivation and engagement of students, it also should enhance the content learning and most importantly, it should give teachers the opportunity to develop student ICT capabilty and not just ICT skills. You can give students all the fancy and new technology available, but if there isn't a system that will ensure progression and continuity in student ICT capability, it is a waste of resources.