There are some words in every profession, I would imagine, that become so overused that they cause people in that profession to roll their eyes. I don’t know what those words are in other professions, but I’m going to guess that educators could all agree with the terms “rigor,” “fidelity,” “21st Century Skills,” and “Project Based Learning” which were some of the identified eye-rollers in a 2018 Education Week opinion article, “Response: We Could Live Without These Education Buzz Words.”
One of the words that made the list was “engagement,” and, ironically (since the book I wrote is titled Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It’s a Narwhal]), I would agree that this is an overused buzzword. My guess is that this term appears in at least 50% of books, articles, or podcasts related to education. More ironically, despite the ubiquity of the word, I feel just as confident that if I asked ten people to define engagement, I would get ten different answers. That is a key reason why I wrote my book; how can we (over) use this term regularly and not have agreement about what it is that we’re talking about?
In fact, I started to really hone in on what engagement means when, as I write about in Chapter 1 of my book, I went to a regional substitute recruitment fair in a neighboring district. Hanging in their faculty bathroom was a poster of Phillip Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement.
"While I certainly wasn't there expecting to learn about engagement—let alone to begin a quest to expand my understanding of engagement that I would ultimately share in this book—that is what happened.
"Though Schlechty saw five levels of engagement, there appeared to me to be three major categories: (1) non-compliance, (2) compliance, and finally (3) engagement. Within each of the five levels, Schlechty identifies the parallel threads of attention and commitment with the highest level as 'engagement' characterized by high attention and high commitment. Though I cannot disagree with this assessment, the more I thought about his work, the more I felt that something was missing." (p. 2)
Thus, my trip to the bathroom in a different school district started me on my journey to define engagement.
Around the same time of this life-changing visit to the bathroom, I was being coached about teacher observations by Dr. Paula Bevan, who was working with the Danielson Group (founded by the group’s namesake, Charlotte Danielson, who literally wrote the book that “provides a roadmap for effective teaching” for those of you who read this and might not be familiar with her work). I want to point out that by the time I met Paula, I had already been a Certified Danielson Trainer for about a decade and conducted at least 1,000 formal and information observations of teachers. I’m saying this because it just goes to show you that everyone can benefit from a good coach no matter how experienced that person is already. But, I digress.
Paula used to tell us that when we look for engagement with students, we should see “brain sweat,” or students working so hard mentally, that if it was a physical task, the students would be sweating. That’s not to say that the students shouldn’t be capable of what they’re doing, but that they should be working at a point of challenge. She would say that because in many classrooms, teachers work hard to make the learning easy for students; teachers are the people who are sweating. In fact, Paula contended, that’s the exact opposite of what students need and want.
Work that is engaging, Paula explained, is work that makes us function at the top-end of our Zone of Proximal Development, also referred to as the ZPD (or work that’s appropriately hard. Click here to read more about ZPD). If Paula was right and the students were the ones who were supposed to be doing the heavy-lifting, that was a fundamental shift between what I should be looking for when going into classrooms and what some of the forms and practices that I was using during my observations were tasking me to look for.
Since there is rarely a day that goes by in my professional life where someone does not use the term engagement, I’m going to share what I learned about engagement over the course of the next several Lyon’s Letters. My goal is not to promote myself or my book (although I’d be truly honored if you read it and gave it a good review on Amazon), but to help us get on the same page with what we mean when we use this overused word: engagement. If you're not in education, don't worry. Everything that I learned about engagement will be of value to anyone personally and in any profession.
With that, since you are a blank slate that hasn’t been influenced by how I’ve defined engagement, I wonder how you would define it. In other words, how do you know when/if someone is engaged?
P.S. For this week's Catch of the Week, I've asked my friend, Angela Stockman, instructional designer and author of books such as Creating Inclusive Writing Environments in the K-12 Classroom and