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”


The Cure for Shenanigans

The only thing I dislike more than cats on the counter?  Barking dogs.  There is one cure and one tool.  First the tool:  




The cure?  Are you ready?  One word:  


You need to be BORINGLY predictable.  Have the bottle ready at every moment.  Use it.  Soon, you don’t have to use it.  You just have to show it.  Before you know it, the cat stays on the floor; the dog shows a little self control.  Simple.  


Ben barks because his "brother" barks.  Not anymore!

Ben barks because his “brother” barks.

If it doesn’t work, one mustn’t blame the bottle.  Clearly, the bottle works, even though it is just water.

It is like that with kids too.  All kids.  Even the “spirited” ones.  Especially the spirited ones.  You don’t need to come down more harshly.  Sending them to the administrator is also less than effective.   If you feel the need to reach for the hammer, consider

  1. your relationship with the child
  2. your culture of engagement
  3. your ability to consistently respond in gentle ways

It isn’t about WHAT we use as much as it is THAT WE RESPOND.  Every time.  Calmly,

quickly returning to building that culture of learning.  

A classroom engaged rarely has problems.  




The REAL World

No Such Thing!

No Such Thing!

Thinking of comments made by a retired educator this week while she defended some practices that felt highly punitive and judgmental to me. “I need to prepare them for the REAL WORLD~!” (she said, condescendingly)….

Not a John Mayer fan (he’s a bit Abercrombie, for my tastes) BUT he’s got a few things to say about this.

What IS the REAL world? And do we KNOW what that means for today’s children? I think not………………….As Howard Gardner now says, I think we want GOOD people; GOOD workers; GOOD collaborators; GOOD citizens. We rarely get that by punishing in the absence of a relationship and teaching! 

My head immediately goes to the John Mayer song, No Such Thing.

“No Such Thing”
Welcome to the real world”, she said to me
Take a seat
Take your life
Plot it out in black and white
Well I never lived the dreams of the prom kings
And the drama queens
I’d like to think the best of me
Is still hiding
Up my sleeve
They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above
So the good boys and girls take the so-called right track
Faded white hats
Grabbing credits
Maybe transfers
They read all the books but they can’t find the answers
And all of our parents
They’re getting older
I wonder if they’ve wished for anything better
While in their memories
Tiny tragedies
 We need the folks who are compelled to stay between the lines as much as we need those unafraid to venture out.  Diversity is about more than just religion, skin color and sexual preference.  
 We all belong………..

Why Do I Need To Learn This?


An article by Audrey Waters, Is Math Education Too Abstract  , on Mindshift discusses the idea that the typical way of teaching math over time is not the most effective.  Water pulls from an op-ed article by Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford:  

“Today,” they write, “American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.  The authors contend that the “traditional” math curriculum focuses too much on abstract reasoning and abstract skills. “Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering,” they suggest.

Audrey’s central question:

“But does thinking about “applied mathematics” mean necessarily that we have to steer clear of algebra and calculus as their own units in math education? Does putting math in context mean that we cannot teach math in abstract?”

The answer seems clear to me:

we need both the pieces and the whole.

There are many sound reasons for teaching the elements and the contexts in which the elements live.   Addressing BOTH is important; doing so is:

  • relevant
  • comprehensive
  • engaging
  • it takes knowing to understanding
  • it allows one to do something with their personal understanding

If we teach the elements and the whole, and  do it well, we will get many questions.   This  will not be one of them:

Why do I need to learn this?

What Does It Mean To Understand?

mid“… Instruction begins when you, the
teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his
place so that you may understand what he
understands and in the way he understands it….”
– Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals, 1854

What is Understanding?

“The performance view of understanding is consonant with
both common sense and a number of sources in
contemporary cognitive science. The performance
perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter
of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things
with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and
examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and
representing the topic in new ways.

From The Teaching for Understanding Guide by Tina
Blythe and Associates (Jossey-Bass, 1999)

I would like to highlight the doing part.  It isn’t just knowing.  It is also doing something with what you know.  

Teaching for Understanding is a framework , developed in a research project at Project Zero during the early nineties, links what David Perkins has called “four cornerstones of pedagogy” with four elements of planning and instruction.

 Four Central Questions About Teaching

What shall we teach?

What is worth understanding?

How shall we teach for understanding?

How can students and teacher know what students understand and how students can develop deeper understanding?

The Teaching for Understanding framework

  • Throughlines, or Overarching Understanding Goals (extend through the entire course—focus learners on BIG understandings)
  • Generative Topic (the content we focus on in our unit; what it is about the topic that motivates us to learn more)
  • Understanding Goals (extend through a unit; connect to Throughlines and stem from the Generative Topic)
  • Performances of Understanding (learners demonstrate their understanding of the topic at various points in a unit)
  • Ongoing Assessment (learners assess themselves and one another, and receive frequent formative feedback from the teacher)

Here is an example of a unit planning guide, created by staff at the Washington International School.

Here  is an organizer to use when creating a project.

For more information, including registration for the High Quality Instruction and Delivery course offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, go here.

We need to teach the parts.  They need to know the elements.  But more importantly, they need to put the knowledge to use in meaningful ways to truly know and understand.  

This is learning in a meaningfully engaged way.  

Teaching the Whole


In his book, Making Learning Whole, David Perkins uses the game of baseball as an analogy to discuss the concept of teaching whole concepts in education.

An article in  Ed., the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online magazine, includes an interview with David Perkins.

““From the beginning I built up a feel for the whole game. I knew what hitting the ball or missing the ball got you. I knew about scoring runs and keeping score. I knew what I had to do to do well, even though I only pulled it off part of the time,” he writes in the book. And then, the epiphany: “I saw how it fit together.” Why not apply this same logic to teaching, Perkins thought, especially in subject areas like math and history, where students often struggle to make connections?

Read more:

We teach the ‘whole’ beautifully in reading and the arts, where students see complete models and get to practice being a reader, an artist, a dancer.  

Why not other areas in school?  From the Ed article

“Partly it’s because learning bits and pieces now and putting them together later simplifies the classroom routine: it’s easier to work on isolated pieces. Partly because when kids make mistakes, the most obvious mistakes concern the pieces — arithmetic errors, misspellings, facts not remembered. Partly it’s a failure of imagination, a failure to figure out what small-scale accessible meaningful versions of mathematical modeling or building historical interpretations would look like for children.

Read more:

Elementitis and Aboutitis

The first plague of education:

We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later. So students end up practicing meaningless pieces to score well on quizzes without developing a sense of the whole game, like the kids . . .who can do the computations but don’t know what operations to use when. This is a persistent plague of education, so to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’ “

The second plague of education:

In the learning about approach, instead of teaching how to do the thing in question, we teach about it. For instance, we teach information about key science concepts rather than teaching students how to look at and think about the world around them with those concepts, which supposedly comes later. But again, the information tends to be meaningless without a context of use, and often “later” never happens. This is another plague of education, so to have some more fun I call it ‘aboutitis’. “

So, how do we avoid this?

Perkins summarizes the “Seven Principles of Teaching”:

1.    Play the whole game.

2.    Make the game worth playing. Motivation and relevance are key.

3.    Work on the hard parts. While he advocates the whole game, he clarifies that he doesn’t mean “just” the whole game.

4.    Play out of town.  In Red Sox Nation, it’s a resonant sports metaphor, but it also refers to the transfer of knowledge from one context to another. 

5.    Play the hidden game.  A stats view of baseball is one of baseball’s “hidden games.” In baseball, algebra, or anything else we learn, there are richer, more layered aspects than show up on the surface…drawing “learners into the game of inquiry.”

6.    Learn from the team.  Perkins notes the importance of social learning, and he urges students to learn from teammates and from other “teams”–other students in different roles.

7.    Learn the game of learning.  Perkins suggests that teachers allow students to be  in charge of their own learning by putting them in the driver’s seat and letting them take control–rather than having them sit in the passenger seat and watch their education
roll by.

Finding the sweet spot where we teach the “elements”; we teach “about” in the context of a meaningful whole,  is how we engage students in deep understanding and meaningful learning.

Learning to bat is virtually meaningless if you never get to “play ball”.  

Slide Rules and the Golden Handshake


When Engineers Thought Slide Rules Were Cool

My father was an engineer from the 50’s through late 80’s.  The slide rule and a very fine, black, felt-tipped pen were his tools.

And then technology took the engineering field by the neck and drug it into the future with a fury.  My dad, however, resisted.  I’m quite certain he was clenching the slide rule in the other hand when his company gently urged him out with a golden handshake.

I wish he knew then how much he would have loved the computer.  

Fast forward to 2010.  Meet Dan Brown.  He  dropped out of college and created this video.   Dan believed that time spent in school interfered with his learning.

created by Pogobat

created by Pogobat

“We are in the midst of a very real revolution.  If institutional education refuses to adapt to the landscape of the information age, it WILL die and it SHOULD die.”

I think of this often as a person dedicated to providing quality,  relevant professional learning to special educators.  I am deeply concerned about educators being  leaders in the information age.   If they are leading our children into the future, how can they do this “unplugged”?

 What are the benefits of using technological tools to support learning?  There are many.

First on the list:  Students like it.  They use it.  

Further, it:

  • facilitates making  connections and  reflection
  •  filters and manages information
  • supports collaborative dialogue (globally, with people who don’t look like them)
  • helps students persuade
  • allows students to synthesize, create, display,

But it isn’t the tool itself.   Good lesson design always starts with “WHY”.    We don’t “do” activities.  We TEACH concepts and facilitate the learning.  The tool is a swift facilitator.  It  “comes” engaging.   It isn’t  going away.  Shouldn’t educators LEAD this?

“There’s nothing magical about any tech tool.  The real MAGIC rests in the minds and hearts of the teachers using digital tools to introduce students to new individuals, ideas and opportunities.”  Bill Ferriter, The Gadget Happy Classroom

But the key is:  you have to USE them to know when they will (or will not) support the thinking and learning in your classroom.  Why are many people resistent?  Here is what I’ve heard:  “it’s too much”; “there are too many gadgets to weed through”; “technology isn’t the panacea”;

 As Clay Shirky says:  

“Do you think “information overload” is just another excuse for why folks aren’t getting things done? What kind of filters do you have in place to keep yourself from getting snowed under?”

It seems many people cope with easy access to most all  information by taking themselves out of the game altogether.

That IS a filter failure.  Ultimately, the students will lose.  Will we allow ourselves to opt for the golden handshake, literally (or figuratively)?

Educators must stay ahead of  (or with) the students through professional learning.  Deleting technology is a mistake because it is the tool for the future.  

The students and new teachers know this.  Do you?