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Very Interesting!


I have a question for you. On your days off, do you want to do more of the work you’re paid to do? This sounds like a silly question, right? Certainly on our days off, we have errands to run and chores to do, but on our days off, most of us would prefer to do the things we are not able to do during our work days. Things like sleeping in, spending time with friends and family, watching movies or sports, getting outside, and other recreational activities. I know I try really hard not to do work on the weekends or over breaks. None of this is to say that I do not enjoy my job. In fact, I honestly love it! However, my work is not what I want to do in my free time.

How can I love my work but not want to do it in my free time? It's because, with regards to engagement, I am interested (not absorbed) in my work. At the point people are interested, they want to do the task. This is fantastic!! Interested people look interested in their work, and that’s because they are. They enjoy it while they are tasked with the work. However, for interested students, when the bell rings they get up and go to the next class. That doesn’t mean they were not engaged in the work they were doing, it’s that they were only willing to do it until they didn’t have to any more. For adults, when the weekend comes, interested employees get up and go home. That doesn’t mean they were not engaged in the work they were doing, it’s that they were willing to do it until they didn’t have to any more.

Here's another question for you. Would you volunteer to do your job for free? I mean, imagine that your job is no longer one that anyone would pay you to do. Now what? Are you still willing to do that work? It is obvious that as adults, when we’re employees we have an expectation that our work will be compensated and if the compensation went away, we would no longer do the work. Work leads to a paycheck. Oddly, we do not see that paycheck as an extrinsic consequence of our work, but that’s exactly what it is, right?

At the same time, there is a constant buzz with regard to intrinsic motivation and students; students should be intrinsically motivated to do their work. Please do not think that I disagree. It would be amazing if students were intrinsically motivated to do their work, but I’ve never met anyone (child or adult) who is intrinsically motivated to want to do all the work that is assigned to them all the time no matter how mundane or magical the work is. That type of thinking creates a mythical understanding about engagement. For example, I really do love to read, but I really don’t love to read everything. I really do love to learn, but I really don’t love to learning everything. This fallacy is a lie that someone once said that suggests that there is no value in doing something for an extrinsic reason. By the way, while adults are paid money for their work, students are paid in grades. This is why if told their work would no longer be graded, interested students would stop doing the work and move on to work that would be graded or to something that they are absorbed in (but that’s for another Letter).

Though interest is not the highest level on the Engagement Continuum, (a) interested people are engaged and (b) this is the place that we should aim for our students to be in every class every day.

“Think about it. What level of defeat exists when people who have to do something enjoy what they are doing? Most of education is compulsory, even at the collegiate level when there are prerequisite courses. Rarely, if ever, do students in elementary or middle schools select the courses they enroll in. The teachers, administrators, the board of education, and the government determine what is required. So, we take students and put them in classes they are required to take and the teachers are required to teach. While all of this sounds painful and demotivating, there are teachers and students every day who find real interest in what they are doing. Students who are excited to work on the project, read about the topic, or learn the skill. Teachers who are eager to take the requirements and personalize them so that even if it is something that must be taught, that students will want to learn about it. This is where engagement starts. This is not to say that authorities should not seek ways to move beyond the interest level; it is simply to say that the interest level is worthy of both celebration and the label of real engagement. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 74)

As I shared three manifestations of non-compliance and compliance, I will share three manifestations of interested—the next level on The Engagement Continuum and the entry level to engagement.

Willing participants, are pretty straightforward and the explanation above should give insight into what a professional would look like (i.e., someone who does work for compensation). Let me take a moment to explain a strategist. “Strategists are those who do the task because they are very attracted to the consequences. In comparison to professionals who liked what they were doing and found a way to get paid to do it, strategists liked the payment and found a way to do the task,” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 72). In schools, these are kids who take an AP course for the weighted grades and learned to also like the course content. As adults, we may take a position we’re not sure we’ll like because of the pay and then grow to like the work. In this way, strategists are people who have a plan related to the extrinsic motivators and come to enjoy the task.

Finally, and this is important, people can become interested in tasks that are not challenging, necessary, or relevant. This could be something like spending a lot of time creating a pretty poster with the wrong information or working with a group on a task that is not aligned to the standards. Given that interesting tasks may not have value, I want to emphasize that the pursuit of engagement should not come at the expense of educational value. “Learning without fun is too common, but so is fun without learning” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 75).

My hope is that this helps create a foundation to understand what engagement really is. Before diving into the next level of engagement, next week I’ll share some easy ways to create interest. In the meantime, here are some questions to consider...

  1. In your current role, think of a task that you are interested in doing. What about that task is interesting? Why do you not continue to pursue doing that task beyond the point you have to?

  2. Most teachers feel like if they took grades away from their students, the students would not do the work. How do students learn to focus on grades (extrinsic) and not on learning (intrinsic)?

  3. Many people have lost interest in their work during the pandemic. What about the pandemic has caused this to happen?


P.S. This week author Jacie Maslyk shared a great catch with us (checkout Jacie's book here:!

I caught Hans and Jennifer Appel. If you haven't heard about #AwardWinningCulture or connected with Hans and Jennifer Appel, you are missing out! This husband and wife team are focused on building a positive culture in our schools with the students at the heart of it all (where it should be!) Through blogs, podcasts and books, this duo is making a difference. Hans's recent blog on Becoming Anti-Racist is powerful and packed full of additional resources to extend your thinking and learn more about this critical topic.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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