Student empowerment vs engagement

I’ve been following a conversation started by Chris Lehmann and joined by Dave Sherman questioning whether student engagement is a worthwhile improvement goal for schools to set.

The conversation is worth some thought as Victorian schools like Elsternwick Primary are mandated to set student engagement improvement goals as part of the strategic planning process. A little context here – student engagement is measured through a standard annual survey to students across the state from years 5 – 9. The survey measures student engagement with their peers, the school and their teachers.

Survey results like this tend to be bunched with the majority of schools measuring somewhere between 3.5 to 4.5 on a 5 point scale. However even given this bunching EPS’s scores for student engagement, particularly engagement with teachers, have been lower than most other schools over a number of year.

What – I hear you say just change the teachers – well these low scores have continued despite changes in teachers over these years. So what is it that student are saying – teachers have low energy levels – don’t give feedback – don’t make learning fun and enjoyable?

What Chris points out is that too often engagement get translated to fun. He argues that its about empowerment because

that sets us up for a more student-centered classroom because it is about what the students get from the experience once the class is done, not what happens during the class. It also allows us to do away with the notion that the classroom is always fun. It’s not.

Chris goes on to say

It’s o.k. if there are days when the work that kids do feels like work. We have to be o.k. with that. And we have to understand that school is work… but that it can be meaningful, powerful, empowering (and even engaging) work.

This makes sense to me.

It also fits in with our focus on teachers improving their capacities to give accurate and explicit feedback to students as individuals [this does not necessarily mean individually]. After a teacher is clear about what mastery looks like [with examples] and has given explicit instruction [differentiated according to the needs of the students] then its about feedback so that students know [in a scaffolded way] what they need to do next to get towards mastery of the subject.

But this is still not necessarily fun.

This generation of students who have access to seemingly infinite resources, who seem to expected immediate gratification or answers and who seem to want constant entertainment [substitute fun] might have the same expectations of teachers.

I see lots of conversations here with students about the context and purpose of learning, the value of effort and persistence and the mutual responsibility of feedback [in the teachers case to give it – explicit and not dressed up comments like I’m proud of your ….. behaviour and for students to use the feedback and make the improvements].

Empowering students to improve through feedback on work that has a clear and connected purpose to their lives is perhaps a higher aim than making work or teachers more engaging or fun?

Interested in thoughts here?

This entry was posted in Instruction, reflections, school, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Student empowerment vs engagement

  1. Ken Timpe says:


    I just discovered Dave and Chris, and have already made this post on their blogs.

    I have to tell you all, I’m not interested in measuring engagement! I’m interested in creating an active engagement environment where students are expected to perform at their best, and reach their full potential.

    I’m the Founder of The Active Engagement Movement in Education. The Movement is driven by a Leadership Framework that identifies 12 Leadership Layers. Active Engagement is embedded in the Framework. The focus is on the student.

    So, it’s all about joining forces, focusing leadership (on students), and improving student performance. One goal is to reduce the dropout rate be 50 percent in 10 years.

    I’m working on The Official Active Engagement Website, but for now, you might want to visit my rough cut blog.


    PS Send me your e-mail address, and I’ll shoot you some of the Active Engagement Movement basics. It’s only a few weeks old, but has potential.

Interested in your thoughts