Nov 23
What Do We Mean When We Say Students Are Engaged in Learning?

"The epitome of student engagement is when

           students experience what is known in psychological 

research as flow

“joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.” 

-   (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2008)


Teachers know the most exhilarating learning times with students are when they are both challenged and capable of engaging in a task that commands their attention due to curiosity, interesting content or physical engagement - those are the most engaging times for teachers as well! 

It is a challenge in classroom management to keep students sitting in place for extended periods of time completing written work - this has long been a traditional expectation in classrooms, and our experiences at EHS with cohorting classes through all of the 2020-21 school year reminded us all just how difficult it is to sustain this kind of 'learning' for any length of time - personally, it gave me a whole new appreciation for the souls who taught me as a small child - ADD active in a time when this was not something that mattered in schools at all!

The idea of 'productive struggle' is an underlying premise to teaching students of any age - if, as teachers, we are able to create structures for students to actively discover new or deeper understanding rather than simply providing information passively for students through direct instruction, they are more likely to want to engage in thinking and problem solving to discover something new on their own or in collaboration with peers.  And it is the wanting to engage in thinking and problem solving that leads to the best learning.

Productive struggle relies on a challenge (like a rigorous academic task) as well as a skill (such as categorizing, creating, sorting, inventing something new, finding the 'best way' to resolve a problem) coming together actively where learners are able to be actively involved by assuming a particular role or responsibility in the learning activity.

Engaging in this productive struggle causes children to think just beyond what they are capable of and encouraging them to try something a little more challenging is how learners further develop their skills and strategies and improve their overall understanding and achievement. Vygotsky, a reknowned 2oth century child psychologist, labelled this process the 'zone of proximal development' where children can learn tasks slightly more challenging than what they are capable of in the company of peers or teachers who can coach and support their growth in learning and understanding (Walker, 2010).

When we are developing tasks for learners, the idea of engagement is usually front of mind since we know this typically provides the best possible opportunities for student growth and improvements in achievement.  There are many considerations that impact the development of engaging tasks, but five key elements of learning tasks are relatively easy to identify:

1) Collaborative tasks - we know knowledge is constructed socially as children try out new thinking and ideas that either gets confirmed or changed as they explore with others

2) students are assigned - or choose - to take on roles and responsibilities  - when children feel they can take responsibility for something successfully, they are more likely to want to participate - we activate the 'curiosity' parts of the brain and they feel like they have efficacy

3) clear learning targets - making the purposes of the learning tasks clear so learners know what they need to be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson, and having targets broken down in specific success points along the way will help students understand and appreciate when they have been successful

4)   adjusting the task as needed to keep students engaged - sometimes what we think will work well with students just doesn't - the task might be too challenging or too easy - so teachers monitor and change frequently, making small adjustments (0r large!) as needed to sustain student interest, engagement and subsequent success

5) always be ready to present a bigger challenge - this is the answer to the 'I'm done, Teacher' situation that seems to happen frequently in classrooms every day - teachers are ready with the 'what's next' expansion of the first task so when students are feeling like they have solved whatever task they have undertaken, there is a 'what's next' piece ready to go when some students are ready to move on to the next steps

Students engaged in learning looks like active, collaborative students exhibiting their curiosity, inventiveness, creativity and applying skills to achieve a clear learning target while investing their energy into trying to solve a problem, create a new project, write a description or story, read an interesting yet challenging story.  We use the principles of design thinking often in our classroom tasks so children are well aware they can make mistakes and learn from them - mistakes do not mean they are 'wrong' but that there is another opportunity to try again in a different way. Every task is achievable in some way.

Learning through engagement becomes deeper, more authentic and interesting and grows from a perspective of curiosity so that children can experience the joy of thinking and doing beyond what they thought previously they could do. This is where best possible learning happens for all our learners and it is the goal of every teacher, every day, in every learning task designed for our learners. 


"Both flow and productive struggle make clear why student engagement is important in the classroom. When students experience the joy of accomplishing a worthy academic challenge, they are motivated to work harder. As students continue to work harder, they build persistence, critical reasoning, and the ability to apply their learning. "    - Michael Toth (2021) 

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Eric Harvie School 


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