Do we really need to care about student “engagement”?

Do we busy teachers really need to concern ourselves with ‘student engagement’? Is entertaining our students, keeping them happy, and pandering to their elementary interests really our job? Well, it’s not exactly like that, but yes, engagement is our job.

But why, some might add, do we need to focus on making the learning ‘engaging’ if that’s not what they will find in the workplace or postsecondary school? They are students; it’s their job to learn, right?

Here’s how I see it. Making the learning experience engaging is to make up for the profound (albeit very necessary) founding injustice that education is built on. That is, we force them into it. Yes, we absolutely have to force them into this for their own good, and it’s even their human right to be forced into it. Nevertheless, they are forced. No way around it. I know injustice is a heavy term, but really, there’s a collection of other human rights that are, to some degree or another, being violated. Right of mobility, self determination, to not be arbitrarily detained, freedom of speech and expression, some students might add the right to not endure cruel and usual punishments.

In some ways, the similarity between our prisons and our schools is disturbing. Inmates / students have strict mobility restrictions, can only participate in certain outdoor physical activities that are measured by the minute in regulated and monitored timeslots, must abide by rigorous conformity and behavior expectations, must be obedient and give unearned respect to authority figures, and endure whole collection of consequences for non-compliance. Our students never signed up for this and didn’t do anything wrong.

We may say, “it’s their job to learn.” Well, maybe, but usually jobs involve a contract which involves financial remuneration.  In most jobs you can go to the washroom without asking your boss, you can stand up from your desk without being told to sit down. You can also quit jobs. So going to school isn’t really like a student’s job. They are forced into it.

Now of course, as I said above, we can’t just let them opt out. According to Fullan’s chart in Stratosphere, interest in school starts falling right after kindergarten. It would not at all be ideal to allow a five year old the freedom to decide to drop out. They need to learn and we owe it to them to give them a quality education, even if it’s against their will. However, what we can do is try to make up for this profound (but very necessary) injustice, by doing our very best to make it engaging, to make it a place where they want to be.

Employers don’t have to do this; they pay. We don’t, so I think it’s our ethical responsibility to at least try to make school a place they want to be. (This is above and beyond the fact that they also learn more when they are engaged, so it’s just more effective too).

A fascinating report entitled, “What did you do in school today?” which analyzed student social, academic and intellectual engagement among Canadian students, had this beautiful thought:

We […] have to recognize that young people’s engagement in school affects not just their future, but the quality of their daily lives and experiences now. It is important to remember that young people are not just adults-in-training; their lives as they experience them now are as valuable and meaningful as those of the adults they will become.

These are important, valuable human beings we are teaching. Yes, it is our responsibility to give them an education and help them learn, but it also our responsibility to ensure that learning is not suffering.



  1. fabianacasella · December 20, 2014

    Dear Mr Robinson:
    I cannot agree more with what you just posted: Thank you for making me think more deeply about this engagement issue”.
    To tell you the truth, in my opinion, we do need to worry about our students´ engagement and honestly, this has been my main concern in the past two years or so.
    Consequently, my number one goal for 2014, which I shared with my colleagues and administrators was to make my students be happy to be in my class, make them have a necessity to be “present” or want to be in class. Never before had I have to worry so much if students got engaged with the numerous activities I proposed (flipping my classes, oral discussions, debates, film reviews, presentations on world affairs, talking about current events, etc) and they proposed of course!, as I did this year.
    As a kind of joke I blamed the 1996-1997 generation: I have a son who was born in 1996 as well, and despite he attended another school, he as well as my students had almost the same point of view, way of criticism and sharp comments about almost anything. However, his level of engagement has always been higher than the average student because he has always had a very curious mind. In spite of his “engagement” with most of the subjects he took during his Senior year, there were moments he did not want to be in class, and like not other teenager he would share that feeling with me, and that really worried me and made me reflect on my own experience: he kind of repeated what I had heard from my own students before: there is no point for me to be here, we do nothing, everything is so boring, there is nothing that interests me…. but that opinion was not about my classes, thank God!.
    Anyway, as you said, our students´ “job” is to study, and that is what we educators take for granted except them: our students! What is the solution for that, I wonder…

    • Tim Robinson · January 12, 2015

      It’s great that you didn’t get the same complaints for your class!

      I think teachers do need to shift our understanding of the student complaint, “Why do we have to do this?” from being an annoying behaviour issue, to a legitimate question. It is their education, they have the right to know why they are learning it. The tough thing is, sometimes things they need to learn aren’t about the content itself, but for how it can grow their brains to learn to be better learners even after the details are forgotten. That can be a tough one to explain to kids. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment! I think you lost me a little bit with your last sentence, though! 🙂

Let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s