The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

In the early 80’s when my teaching career began, the term “classroom management” was widely used to describe the multitude of things teachers do to minimize disruptions and maximize learning.  I learned to increase my effectiveness through trial-n-error as almost no time was spent discussing and practicing the variables that mattered.  Courses designed specifically to support student teachers with “management” did not exist; the conversations were about the subjects and the “how” of teaching.


During the early 90’s, as a school psychologist, I was called in when individual students were communicating displeasure about their situation by acting out, physically and/or verbally.  They had “behavior problems” in need of  “fixing”.   Classroom management was the cure.  A rigid behavior system that included appropriate consequences was the focus.  I have been a primary author of thousands of individualized behavior plans, and yet I could see the forest behind the trees.

The forest was problematic.  



To help solve the real problem, I had to set my eyes on a larger concept that included not only the humans in a classroom and school, but also the physical environment itself.  I reject the term classroom management and have adopted a more appropriate, supportive and prescriptive notion

Classroom Culture


The culture of the classroom teaches

Ron Ritchhart, Principle Investigator for the Cultures of Thinking Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes there are 8 cultural forces  that define our classrooms:

  1. Time
  2. Opportunities
  3. Routines and structures
  4. Language
  5. Modeling
  6. Relationships and interactions
  7. Physical environment
  8. Expectations

These cultural forces exist at all times.  The argument is that we should intentionally design the culture with the students so that what we value and believe around teaching and learning is immediately evident.  The culture does,  indeed,  teach.  Some important questions to ask:

  • Who holds the power for decision-making?  Students, teacher or both?
  • Have we anticipated variability in advance, offering options for students to engage with new content, master the concepts and show understanding?
  • Does thinking and learning trump work completion and grades?
  • Are there consistent routines in place to help students think and engage in meaningful conversations?
  • Does the physical environment provide options for seating?  Is there adequate natural light and ventilation?
  • Have we created an inclusive, interdependent tribal community where we learn from one another?
  • Do we take time to thoughtfully solve conflict together, as it arises? Do we help ensure equitable resolution?
  • Do we show that we value understanding by taking the time to adequately explore topics?
  • Do we avoid unhealthy competition, shaming, blaming and other interactions that are defeating?
  • Is there plenty of opportunity for time spent solving real problems?  Do all students experience mastery?
  • Do we have lists of teacher-generated rules or have students identified norms for how we will be together?


Students in thriving, engaging  classroom communities do not need to be managed. 



The Engaged Classroom: Current State

The data we have about trends in student engagement are worrisome. A 2015 Gallup poll of more than 800,000 students nationwide in grades 5 through 12 found that, while 50% of all the students polled reported feeling engaged at school, fully 29% of students overall reported not feeling engaged, and an alarming 21% reported feeling actively disengaged at school.  

Engagement decreases steadily from fifth grade through middle school and high school.  The lowest point occurs in the junior year of high school.   In fifth grade, three-quarters of students feel involved in and enthusiastic about school, but by 11th grade, the same is true for only about one-third of students.







Attention varies within an individual, across the day and over time


Phillip Schlecty’s theory on engagement dictates that even highly engaged classrooms will have students who are not committed and whose attention is diverted.  His model reveals a continuum of engagement, going from Rebellion (low committment-diverted attention) to Engaged (high commitment-high attention).  In between we have Retreatism, Compliance and Strategic Compliance with varying levels of commitment and attention.  Many of our most academically successful students do what they need to earn the grade but do not see the value and do not retain what they learned.  These Strategically Compliant students associate value with the other extrinsic things (parental approval or grade) but are not learning at high levels.  They are not truly engaged.


What can we do?

For answers, we can look at the student, parents and/or community.  We can look at the whole school.  Research, however, suggests that the most powerful influence on outcomes that educators can impact relies on the classroom teacher and the culture that is created within.

The classroom teacher is among the most powerful influences in learning.  –  John Hattie

  Next up:  The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

A Model for Student Engagement


Authentic smiles from engaged students

A tremendous amount of research has concluded that student engagement is one of the key contributors to academic (and life) success.

We also know that engagement is influenced by context.  Learners are more likely to engage if their learning environment is supportive, compassionate, attentive and responsive. Just as students need support to be engaged, classroom teachers may require support to be successful in the challenging work of cultivating and maintaining a high level of student engagement throughout the year and across years.


We asked students and staff all over our county what student engagement mean to them.   Students from Huron Valley, MI created a song to accompany the varied pictorial responses in a video you can view here. 


According to 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.”

Model For Engagement


Members of the Culture/Climate Unit at Oakland Schools, including Karen Gomez, Dr. Jay B. Marks, Dr. Julie McDaniel and myself, created the model above to depict important features of student engagement.  Work out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Archambault, et al (2009) facilitated our thinking.  Students (and staff) experience varying degrees of affective, behavioral and cognitive involvement.

  • Affective engagement:  the experience, feelings, attitudes, and perceptions a student has towards school, including their sense of belonging, interest, willingness to learn, and general sense of liking school.
  • Behavioral engagement: a student’s willingness  to follow rules and adhere to cultural norms and  involvement in the classroom and with extracurricular activities.
  • Cognitive engagement: cognitive functions involved in learning

Four other major contextual features were identified.  These either inhibit or support engagement for students and staff.  We must intentionally attend to these features,

  1. Culture Is the environment inclusive and learner-friendly?  Are cultural forces intentionally designed to support belonging, thinking and learning? Are there predictable routines that remove roadblocks and facilitate smooth transitions?  Does the physical environment provide access to resources; create an inviting backdrop for deep learning? Is the culture collaborative, void of unhealthy competition?
  2. Student Voice Are students stakeholders, articulating their perspectives and directing activities? Do they have a collaborative role, leading change and contributing to data sources?  Do adults share authority, demonstrate trust, protect against cooptation, learn from students and facilitate equitable conflict resolution?
  3. Relationships  Are adults and students able to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups?  Can they communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed?  Are interactions authentic and respectful?
  4. Social Emotional Learning  Can adults and students recognize and interpret emotions, understanding their causes and consequences? Do they have the ability to label and discuss emotions? Do they know when and how to express particular emotions?  Can they effectively regulate emotions when they are triggered, managing stress, maintaining impulses and staying motivated?

When the context is healthy, authentic, supportive, encouraging, compassionate,  attentive (and responsive) adults and students are more likely to be engaged and stay engaged.

You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
                                  – Abraham Lincoln

Archambault, I., Janosz, M., Morizot, J., & Pagani, L. (2009). Adolescent behavioral, affective, and cognitive      engagement in school: Relationship to dropout. Journal of School Health, 79(9), 408-415; 415.

Next up:  The Engaged Classroom:  Current State