It’s Easy To Mistake Engagement for Learning: Here’s How I Learned the Difference (Precious Boyle)

Precious Boyle is the senior director of program strategy at Leading Educators, and has served as a teacher, teacher-leader, dean, and principal.”

This appeared in Leading Educators, Oct 27, 2020,

As a middle school social studies teacher, I took a lot of pride in coming up with ways to keep my students engaged. Like many teachers, I took those days when I could tell students were enjoying my class as a sign that my hard work and stress were worth it.

When planning, I would ask myself a simple question: “How would I want to learn about this if I were 11 or 12?” Of course, I spent time establishing routines for how class began, and paid attention to how students were responding so I could shift to my backup plan if necessary. But that central question generally led me to spending lots of time teaching with games and other activities that were fun for kids.

Then a classroom observation changed my life.

I had planned what I thought was a brilliant lesson that would feed my love for scrapbooking and get students to connect their learning about the early civilizations. I set up each table as a different cultural component of a civilization: government, geography, religion, economics, and education. There were magazines, research materials, colored pencils, scrapbooking paper, and other materials on each table. Students had to complete an activity by sharing and questioning each other.

Laughter and joy filled the room. But were they learning, or was it just “pretty”?

That was the question the assistant principal asked me as we debriefed his drop-in observation. I was taken aback. Of course they were learning … weren’t they? He asked me to look at students’ reflections to see what they were retaining. Sure enough, more of the responses were about the activity than about the content.

That’s what it took for me to truly realize that engagement and learning are not equal. After that moment, I coupled my central question — how do my students want to learn? — with a more intentional focus on what exactly I wanted them to learn. I focused on continuously checking their understanding throughout a lesson, rather than relying on their engagement to indicate their learning. When I shifted my focus to see engagement as a vehicle for learning instead of an indication of learning, my

students’ performance improved as well.

I’ve been thinking about these tensions this year as I support coaches and administrators who are helping teachers plan lessons or develop an approach to teaching while so many students are learning virtually. Even before COVID-19, we were competing for students’ attention. Now, students have even more choices, so it’s tempting for teachers to explore every possible option for engaging students in virtual learning….

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

8 responses to “It’s Easy To Mistake Engagement for Learning: Here’s How I Learned the Difference (Precious Boyle)

  1. David F

    Robert Coe at Durham University has had a PP presentation kicking around the internet since 2015 that says just this–engagement is a poor proxy for learn. Instead, learning happens when students have to think hard. Paul Kirschner wrote about it here: https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/learning-and-teaching-is-difficult-and-there-are-no-shortcuts/

  2. wjshan

    The messages in David’s link (https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/learning-and-teaching-is-difficult-and-there-are-no-shortcuts/) answered professor Cuban frequently asked question: So what? That is, as far as we know that engagement not necessarily equals to learning, then, so what? Many thanks!

  3. I think educators are sometimes too concerned with how students seem to like them/their class and not enough on what is actually being learned, be it content, skills, attitudes or something else.
    One of my goals as a high school teacher was to worry less about what my students thought of me when they were 14 and more about what they’d think of me when they were 21.

    Or as Twain wrote, When I was 14, I couldn’t see how anyone could be as dumb as my old man but when I was 21, I didn’t understand how anyone could have learned so much in 7 years!

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