Engaged vs. "Looking" Engaged

When you walk into a classroom and the teacher is teaching a whole group lesson, how do you know the students are engaged?  Like, how do you really know?

I was a beginning teacher in the time of white boards, thumbs up, and think-pair-share.  Every teacher prep text book wrote about it and every professional development class modeled it.  Everyone was pushing it and everyone was doing it.

And we were taught that by doing those things, all students would be 'engaged' and we could 'check for understanding'.

I'm starting to wonder if that's true.

I'm starting to wonder if all that's just a bit of crap...

Okay, okay, before you throw me to the wolves and let me rot in she-hates-engagement jail, let me explain.

I'm hearing a lot about the teacher evaluations that are coming to the classrooms of many of my colleagues around the country.  Visions of principals walking into a classroom with a checklist on an iPad, ticking off every little thing they see (or don't see) are becoming a reality. 

One of those checklist items is about engagement and I'm starting to wonder if what we've been taught about engagement is really true.

Because even though I spend weeks on setting up expectations,  I have definitely had students talk about anything other than what I asked during a think-pair-share.  Because I have definitely had a student copy another child's whiteboard work.  Because I have most definitively (I suspect) had students give a thumbs up when they had no.idea.what.I.was.talking.about.

But I was doing a good job! My students were engaged!

Or were they?
Which makes me wonder: Do we really have students who are engaged or do we have students who are really good at looking engaged?

One of the big changes in Common Core literacy is that students need to have deep and meaningful conversations about text.  And I don't know about you, but when I'm having deep and meaningful conversations about anything, the last thing I'm doing is putting up my thumb.

Why? Because I'm just too busy thinking and talking and listening.

When I think about my students having conversations about text, I envision them as organic discussions where the words flow freely among them. Where I can hardly get a word in sometimes. Where they're responding to each other and adding onto each other's thoughts.  In short: a real conversation where everyone's engaged because everyone is thinking and talking and listening.

But setting that up takes a heck of a lot of time and effort.  And sure, so does doing think-pair-share correctly.  That's not the problem.

Doing think pair share or thumbs up incorrectly is too easy.  It's too easy for kids to look engaged and not be.  It's too easy for us to look at them looking engaged and for us to think they're with us, for our kids to just go through the motions because we say to 'turn to their neighbor', or put up their thumb without doing any real thinking work.

That's the problem. 

The problem is that we can use strategies that have the potential to be good, but often are just a mask.  Our students appear to be doing the thinking when in reality they're just saying whatever random idea pops in their head. Or they're repeating something the teacher said.  Or sometimes they just say, "I don't know." They're giving a thumbs up because they don't want to bother and well, everyone else is doing it and they don't want to look wrong.

And the problem is that doing a strategy like that (effectively or not) could gain us a check mark on the check list regardless of the student learning or the true student engagement.

And that just sucks.

So let's make sure that our engagement strategies are actually doing what we think they're doing.  Let's make sure that we're not just having kids turn to their partner because it's been a couple of seconds and no one's got the answer.

And let's not be afraid to abandon the traditional engagement strategies and get our kids engaged authentically as thinkers, conversationalists, and listeners.  It's a hard task, but is most definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

Let's not be afraid to try something other than think-pair-share when we're struggling with engagement.

Because think-pair-share doesn't automatically equal engagement.

Engagement equals engagement, regardless of the packaging.

What do you think?  What are your best strategies for getting students engaged, and not just looking engaged?


  1. I totally agree with everything you said! Our staff has done a book study this year on culturally responsive teaching. The strategies I've incorporate into my daily instruction from that study has showed me what "true" engagement looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Adding things like "walk and talks" where students get up and walk around and share, call and responses, and adding actions to our learning has my students actively engaged with not only the content, but with each other. Great post, thanks for sharing!

    Tales of a Teacher

    1. Thanks for leaving such a great comment! That is an incredible thing to work on as a staff, especially since great engagement strategies can transfer to any content area! I'd love to know the name of the book so I can check it out!

  2. Wow! Lots to think about - thank you! Maria

  3. I really liked this post and agree 100%. This is our year to be reviewed by other principals, superintendents and people from the Ministry of Education. It is easy to fake it and put up all the things on the checklist and use strategies they want to see but it is a lot harder to really engage students. I will check back to see if anyone leaves the magical answer :) until then I will just keep trying. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    1. So true! Truly engaging kids is really hard work. If you find the magic answer in your search let me know!! :-)

  4. Awesome things to think about! Yes teacher evals do now ask for that engagement component. YES... I do wonder and want my students to think aloud and have others respond. Allowing and expecting open conversation is the first step, I believe. I encourage and praise students who ask questions when they don't understand and then there is a feeling of mutual respect that allows the students to respond. When it happens, I feel like I do make a difference. YES, it is hard work. I will also check back for more responses and hopefully learn of how others use engagement techniques that produce thinking and conversation among students. Thanks for beginning the discussion!

    1. I LOVE that you point out that the environment is a huge factor in engagement. I totally agree! Students can't engage their mind if they're afraid of looking wrong. Awesome point! Thanks for commenting and reading!

  5. I agree that conversation is key to engagement. With the more non-verbal check-ins it's hard to measure whether students are just guessing or not! Recently my middle school has been using the book Academic Conversations for building our own skills in the classroom in leading and shaping conversations. One thing is using questions that are deep questions and that promote thinking and conversation. Another aspect is having students create their own discussion questions so they have ownership.


    1. What a great idea, to have kids create their own questions. Questioning is so valuable! What kinds of questions do you have your students create? More specific to certain content or more essential-type questions. Thanks for the book title. I am adding it to my Amazon list! Thanks for commenting Katie!


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