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Don’t Confuse Participation and Engagement

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June 7th, 2018

Presented by James Fleming – Transcription Below

Hi. Welcome to the Illuminate Whiteboard series. My name is James Fleming. I’m a subject matter expert in secondary instruction. And one of the best parts of my job is I get to walk through classrooms at middle schools and high schools looking at really high-quality instruction. I get to walk with site leaders. I get to work with instructional leaders and we talk about what makes a really great classroom and really great instruction for learners.

Best Practices

And I’m going to share something with you that some of the best principals I know have already figured out. There’s a difference between participation and engagement when you’re in a high school or a middle school. Don’t confuse participation and engagement when it comes to high-quality instruction. I’m going to give you a couple of tips that are going to help you spot when students are participating and then what you should be looking for that really means that students are deeply engaged in their learning because it is possible for students to be really participatory in class and not actually engaging in a meaningful way with the content.

Single Word Answers

Some of those would be when your students are answering in single words or phrases, even if they have the correct answer, even if they’re answering enthusiastically, normally students don’t talk in single words and phrases when they’re talking about something that has a personal connection or has meaning. So, even if you’re hearing the right answers, it might not mean that they’re engaged in the content.

The Right Answer Doesn’t Mean Engagement

Another clear sign that students are not engaged in meaningful learning is when all the questions and all the answers are coming out of a depth of knowledge of one or a depth of knowledge of two. I see this in math classes a lot where I’ll be walking through and students and teachers will be working problems on the board or working problems in an interactive way and if the teacher is using the students as basically human calculators, it doesn’t mean that they’re engaged in the problem-solving. Asking them to do the computation does not mean that they’re learning the math. There’s a big difference between participating and solving the problem and engaging in a meaningful way.

Give Them Time

Here’s something that you can always watch for if you’re thinking about student engagement. If students don’t need wait time, they’re not thinking. It’s great to walk into a classroom and hear students actively participating and responding to teacher questions, but if they’re able to fire back answers as fast as the teacher is able to call them out, that means they’re not engaged in the learning process. They’re simply repeating back knowledge that they already have. There’s a lack of engagement even though there’s a really high participation in that room. And even if everything else is looking great, I want you to watch who’s doing all the talking in the classroom. If the conversation is between the student and the teacher, there’s no engagement. Student to teacher conversation is participation. You can have deep engagement between the student to teacher, but we’re talking about teenagers here. If teenagers are engaged in a lesson and they are making personal meaning out of it, you can’t have a room full of 30 teenagers who stay out of each other’s business. So, if there is really meaningful engagement going on in the classroom, you’re never going to have student to teacher conversation.

What Are Signs Students are Really Engaged?

So, what are some signs that the students are really engaged in a meaningful way and learning? Students naturally talk in complete sentences. When a student cares about content or a student is actively participating in content, they naturally speak in complete sentences. It’s really human for us to speak in complete sentences. Single words, single answers, single phrases that means the student is disengaged. You also want to listen for the number of I statements. As a teenager or a preteen starting to make sense out of their learning, they’re going to be connecting it to what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, what they’ve thought or what they’ve felt. So, a lot of I statements is actually a really good sign that the student is making sense and is organizing the information in a way that makes sense for them. I statements is a better indicator of engagement than just being able to spit out the right answer.

Students Should Talk to Each Other

You should also see spontaneous student to student conversation. If the student and teacher have a two-way conversation and everybody else listens, that means the other learners are not engaged. Like I said before, teenagers don’t stay out of each other’s business. Whatever one teenager says is going to spark an idea, spark a rebuttal, spark an elaboration from somebody else. So, you want to see student to student interaction where they’re building on or contradicting or rebutting what the other student is saying. So, student to student interaction is the best sign that students are really meaningfully engaged in the content.

Stay On Topic

And a great sign that students are engaged in the content is when the teacher is really working to keep it on topic. Teenagers don’t naturally stay on topic. Teenagers are constantly pulling in new ideas. And again, it’s a sign that they’re making sense and they’re ordering the facts in a way that makes sense with their learning. So, you really want students to be kind of pulling off topic in their conversation.


Engagement is the most important part as we get down to a depth of knowledge three, depth of knowledge four, conversations and having students really start to make sense of their learning. So, as you do instructional rounds, as you’re looking at instruction at your own site, don’t get participation and engagement confused. Make sure you’re watching to make sure that your students are getting really engaged in their instructional lessons. Thanks for paying attention. And go out and be awesome.

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