Engaging = Entertaining?

Many classroom and school improvement strategies encourage or promote the importance of student engagement! But what is this “engagement” they speak of?

It seems there are many different ideas of what student engagement is.  I have written previously about the role of ‘fun’ in building relationships (see “Do I have to be a Clown?”), but I see engagement as something else.

So I asked myself…

Can I be engaged without being entertained?

Am I entertained without being engaged?

My answer to both of these questions was YES!

So then, what is my understanding of engagement? If others believe engagement relies on being entertained or enjoyment, then their definition must be different, surely.

In an article in Forbes Kevin Kruse explores employee engagement. He identifies what it’s not….

Employee engagement does not mean employee happiness. Someone might be happy at work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working hard, productively on behalf of the organization. While company game rooms, free massages and Friday keg parties are fun–and may be beneficial for other reasons–making employees happy is different from making them engaged.

Employee engagement doesn’t mean employee satisfaction. Many companies have “employee satisfaction” surveys and executives talk about “employee satisfaction”, but the bar is set too low. A satisfied employee might show up for her daily 9-to-5 without complaint. But that same “satisfied” employee might not go the extra effort on her own, and she’ll probably take the headhunter’s call luring her away with a 10% bump in pay. Satisfied isn’t enough.

So if we apply this to student engagement, then it infers that students can be happy in class but not engaged in their learning and satisfied with their teacher/class/subject but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer to be learning somewhere else.

I take this further with this query, why is it, that a parent will take their “perfectly satisfied, happy” child out of their local school and send them to an independent school 200m down the road?

I believe it has to do with challenge. If we promote a culture, an atmosphere where students are challenged, this is where engagement is fostered. The challenge mustn’t be beyond our reach nor should it be too easily attained, but I believe this is where the learning is most rich.

The majority of my own learning is developed void of any entertainment. I have experienced several professional development sessions where I was thoroughly entertained yet I didn’t take any new learning away. I have also spent many hours reading dull lengthy studies which actually provided me with a rich source of information and a new perspective to take forward.


I asked my son (aged 10) a few questions to gauge his experience of challenge (I often ask him questions because he is completely honest about his classroom).  This is how our conversation went:

“What has been something you found hard to learn?”

“This year or last year?”

“Any time.”


“Why was division hard?”

“I couldn’t figure out what it really meant, whether it meant add or subtract.”

“What helped you understand?”

“We did lots of problems, where we had to figure out whether it was sharing or getting more. Then we used short division to figure out the answer.”

“What helped you keep going even when it was hard?”

“I knew it was important to understand it so I could figure out the problems.”

“Do you think you understand division now?”


“How did it make you feel when you figured it out?”

“It felt good, I felt relieved. Do I have to answer any more questions now?”

“Be off with you!”

So what I get from this brief conversation is:

1. He was learning something he couldn’t already do (challenge)

2. He knew it was important to learn it (purpose)

3. He was given real problems to solve to develop his understanding (relevant)

4. He was able to develop his understanding (learning)

This is what I think engagement is!

When engagement is defined as paying attention by looking at the teacher/presenter, then you already discount every child/person on the Autism Spectrum who find difficulty in face to face or those who prefer or focus better with hearing as opposed to seeing.  If you define it as contributing to discussion, then you cancel out all the introverts who may be uncomfortable in group participation. When you suggest that engagement is students taking notes, it would be interesting to see if these notes have any actual “meaning” to that student afterwards.

I think the measurement of engagement is the learning.  Are you learning anything new, are you developing your understanding, or changing your perception? Do you see purpose or reason and keep going even when it is challenging? If you do, I think you are engaged.

I believe if we want to engage our students we have to:

Increase resilience in challenge, so they gain satisfaction by overcoming difficult problems (intrinsic motivation not extrinsic reward based satisfaction).

Provide real and relevant learning opportunities, so they see meaning and purpose to keep going when it is hard.

Then recognise the learning that has occurred and provide opportunities to demonstrate or acknowledge it.

I would love to hear from others as to how you see engagement and ways you would “measure” it in yourself and/or your students.

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