Engagement in the Classroom: Do we know it when we see it?

As I write this, the ISACS visiting accreditation team is wrapping up their report for us. I had the opportunity to sit and talk with many members from the team. Those who had visited classrooms were quick to remark on how engaging our program is and how impressed they were by the high level of interaction between our teachers and students.

Academic Council, our school-wide academic leadership group made up of the academic/department chairs from each division, has been looking at student engagement as part of our work on strategic accreditation. We utilized the research of Charlotte Danielson and her Framework for Learning to help us develop a stronger working definition of student engagement. While we often talk a lot about whether students are engaged or not in classrooms, we realized we needed to be more specific about how we observed “engagement.” Danielson defines engagement not as “busy” or “on task,” but as “intellectually active.” Learning activities for students may be hands-on, but they should always be “minds-on,” intellectually active in learning important and challenging content.

Danielson writes:

That is, they are engaged in discussion, debate, answering “what if?” questions, discovering patterns, and the like. They may be selecting their work from a range of (teacher-arranged) choices, and making important contributions to the intellectual life of the class. Such activities don’t typically consume an entire lesson, but they are essential components of engagement.

She goes on to note that there are critical questions for an observer in determining the degree of student engagement: “What are the students being asked to do? Does the learning task involve thinking? Are students challenged to discern patterns or make predictions?”

And while we have been thinking about students, we are also considering notions of what it means to be an “engaged teacher.” Teacher engagement can be measured in several ways:

  • Growth — Am I developing as a teacher? Do I continue to learn and grow?

  • Collegiality and Connection to Peers — Do I feel like a member of the team? Are my contributions valued?

  • Student Connections — Do I know and understand my students as learners? Can I meet their needs and help them meet expectations for learning?

Our goal is that engaged teachers mean engaged students and, by extension, engaged families. This accreditation visit has proved to be quite meaningful. It is not often that we get a chance to slow down and reflect on the work we do with students each day.