Excerpted from the book, “UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids,” by Eric Sheninger, published by Corwin, 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 engage students effectively. 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.

Hidden Curriculum (2014) provides the following definition of engagement:

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 this description 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 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.

Sheninger_UnCommon Learning

It is so important to look beyond mere 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 or outcomes?
• Are students demonstrating the construction of new knowledge? Are they creating a learning product or artifact?
• How are students applying essential skills they have acquired to demonstrate conceptual mastery?
• What assessments (formative or summative) are being used to determine standard attainment?
• How are students being provided feedback about their progress toward the specific learning objectives or outcomes?
• Is there alignment to current observation or evaluation tools?

Engagement, relevance, and fun are great, but make sure there is observable evidence that students are learning when integrating technology.

Excerpted from the book, “UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids” by Eric Sheninger, published by Corwin, 2015. He is a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this he was the award-winning principal at New Milford High School.  You can follow him on Twitter at @E_Sheninger.

  • mgsalinger

    The author here does a good job of defining what real engagement is. The “mere student engagement” that he opposes is not engagement. If we do not hold the naming of concepts to a high standard we risk losing any meaning to said concepts. Mis-defining a term to prove a point decreases our vocabulary.

  • Claudia

    I agree. I also believe teachers still lead what research suggest is 80% of instructional time. What we need is for them to faciliate learning not lecture and we would get higher engagement.

  • bachir . B

    I totally agree with the author. Using technology shouldn’t be a goal in it self but it should be a well- planned means to students’ engagement which would help attaining the learning objectives planned before.

    • Desire’ Truter

      Desire’ Truter.
      I concur. Teacher agency needs to be factored into effective use of technology in terms of generating student engagement leading to ‘active learning.” As Shenninger points out, there is constant talk of the impact technology has on student engagement, but the dilemma for many teachers today is how to make the use of technology relevant and meaningful in observable ways to ensure that real learning does occur. Engagement is visible, but learning is not always quantitatively measurable when technology is used in a classroom. When one accepts that “engagement does not necessarily equate to learning” but that “engagement is the impetus for learning,” one is confronted with the realisation that the responsibility rests firmly on the teachers to determine clear learning objectives and then ensure that the use of any form of technology builds student understanding, critical thinking, concept mastery as well as engagement. Also, definite steps must be taken to ensure that all of these are measurable. Every teacher eagerly using technology in the classroom to meet the needs of their 21st century learners, needs to carefully consider all of the bullet-pointed questions at the end of this extract.

  • Cathy G.

    The insights that were given by the author are considerable. I believe that the educator must establish a clear vision of the learning objective to their students. Technology is a great way to get student actively engaged in the lesson, but it must be properly aligned. I personally love incorporating technology into my lessons. My students enjoy the innovative idea of using computers, a smartboard, or an iPad during learning. Although they are always engaged, I would have never thought that some may miss the purpose of the lesson, as a result of the use of technology in the classroom. It was very informative to read this authors comments regarding the use of technology during instruction. I will begin to ask myself the noted questions during my reflection, if technology will be used.

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