The Demise of the Education Buzzword “Student Engagement”

As a speaker at many regional and national conferences, I am hearing a resurgence of a buzzword being used to sell every piece of technology, curriculum and related products. Even as I scanned some articles recently (edited to remove any reference to specific products or vendors), the seemingly overuse of this term suggests not only are we selling our students short, but we’re missing the ultimate goal of what technology and education together can accomplish. Here’s some quotations:

  • “Supporters tout student engagement, but effect on achievement unclear”
  • “After an initial learning curve, students are more engaged – one of the program’s goals”
  • “Students learn better when they are fully engaged”
  • 76.5% of teachers believe that students are more engaged in learning when technology is integrated into instructional activities”
  • “Opinion remains divided as to whether engagement begets a deeper understanding of subject matter, or merely reflects fascination with the technology”

But what exactly is student engagement? And why do we as educators believe this is the perfect archetype of teaching and learning?

Our goal should be achieve “invested students” who, by definition, are committed emotionally and intellectually, devote effort to the goal and expect results. 

Seeing and treating students as our customers will make the concept of student-centered learning to become more of a reality.

To quote a definition from The Glossary of Education Reform, “student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”

The first time I read this definition, the thought of a puppy or kitten came to mind. A few years ago, my wife and I adopted a brother and sister pair of kittens from a local rescue center. When we first came home with Mickey and Munchkin, it was clear our three daughters were curious, interested, very attentive, optimistic and passionately in love with their new pets. For the next few hours they hugged them, played with them, fed treats and tried to start teaching them tricks. According to the definition, bring home these kittens created engagement with the children.

By the next day, questions such as “who feeds them,” “who is cleaning the litter box,” “who trims their claws,” and “who is cleaning up when they get sick” was met with absolute silence and disregard. Within 24 hours, my so-called “engaged” children were disengaged, as the newness wore off and they returned to their tween and teenage lives. Sure, every now and then the kids may take a photo and post an Instagram image of the cats doing something cute, like laying across a just-delivered pizza box for the warmth, but for the most part they day-to-day level of interest waned.

What I realized in the weeks that followed my adoption of these kittens mirrors an issue that we, as educators, must address if we are to get beyond seemingly trivial goals in favor of more deep-rooted and life-impacting outcomes. While my daughters were merely “engaged” by the thought of new pets in the home, it was my wife and I that were “invested” in the well-being of these animals.

In education, accepting “engaged students” is easy. Engaged students show interest and curiosity, likely due to exposure to new technology or some entertaining element to learning (hence the concept of “edu-tainment” years ago). If engagement is the answer, then every school that has given devices to students in 1:1 programs touting increased student engagement should also see a correlation to improvement in test scores and graduation rates….but they don’t.

We’ve all read stories of students who seemingly overcome impossible odds to graduate with top scores, and attend the college of their choice and pursue careers they have dreamed of since childhood. They’ve overcome life-threatening illnesses, losses of close family, poverty, violence or they’ve attended some of the lowest performing schools in the nation without adequate desks or textbooks for every child. These children inspire us not merely because they were engaged in their classes, but because they were so “invested” in their education, they would never allow any obstacle get in their way of a solid education they deserve.

I want to see the end of “engaged students” in our vocabularies – something that appears nearly impossible for many educators and salespeople. It’s easy to suggest it exists and leads to little efficacy to suggest learning outcomes have actually improved. Our goal should be achieve “invested students” who, by definition, are committed emotionally and intellectually, devote effort to the goal and expect results. Seeing and treating students as our customers will make the concept of student-centered learning to become more of a reality.

In terms of edtech, engaged students are handed cute pieces of technology – cloud based tablets and laptops – and due to lack of planning, curriculum changes and professional development – students spend little time on learning tasks with those devices. School leaders’ visions may be rather limited to the most basic of change (going from physical textbooks to digital textbooks). Invested students, however, don’t rely on merely passive learning methods. They are challenged with discussion, project based learning and even teaching or coaching others.

They may have similar computing devices as their "engaged" peers, but they also have access – and demand access – to high performance computing devices for advanced STEM, arts, music, and video production just to name a few possibilities. The student is no longer a consumer of content, and far more than a creator of content. They are inventors of new ideas and expression.

Plenty of articles and publications focus on motivation, including articles I enjoyed from Edutopia and TeachHub.

I presented this concept during a keynote before an audience of superintendents recently, and during a follow-up round table session was asked “How do we measure this impact?” I suggested conducting a simple exit interview with students, 12 months after they leave the school system (which could mean graduation, drop out or moved to another town). If we asked the following simple questions to these former customers, could we help identify what it would take to ensure the current customers get an even more results-driven experience?

  • Graduates attending college – Did you require any remediation in your first year of collegiate study?
  • Graduates going to work force/military – Was there any core skills you felt you were lacking in your first year or when applying for jobs?
  • Dropouts – If you could speak to your school 2 years ago, what would you have asked them to help you with so you wouldn’t have dropped out?
  • Transferred/Moved – Were there any learning skills or subjects you felt you lacked compared to your peers at your new school?

Going forward I have pledged to remove the term “student engagement” from my vocabulary. I ask “How can we get more students invested in their learning?” It will be a challenge for our industry to change, but one that will directly benefit every student.


Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for Hewlett Packard Americas Education. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at www.hp.com/go/jobs. A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at www.linkedin.com/in/elliottlevine/.

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