The Myth of Engagement

If you just get kids excited about learning, they will be engaged.

We hear statements such as this so very often in education. I agree with the point that we must help kids find what ignites their passion and assist them to pursue learning.

it is vital to light that proverbial fire in a child’s spirit. 

It’s not about the technology or the tool… it’s about the kid. Yes, technology can be engaging occasionally, but eventually the novelty wears off. If kids are doing the “same old, same old” on a digital device, the novelty of the device will not keep any kid engaged.

Digital worksheets are not more engaging than paper worksheets. Interactive white boards are not more engaging. Trying to find a “hook” for bad pedagogy doesn’t mask bad pedagogy.

To engage a kid, you have to look at the kid.

As an educator creeping up on the 20 year mark, I feel like we’re bombarded with new tips and tools to “trick” kids into being engaged. The problem with those tips and tricks is that they’re usually gimmicks, and kids are not fools.

Want to engage a kid? Get to know him. Ask her what interests her. To engage children in learning, show them that you care about their interests and what makes them tick.


Realize that kids are not learning machines every day. Some days, they haven’t had enough sleep. Some days, they haven’t had adequate/proper nutrition. Some days, they’re having problems at home. For many kids, sleep, nutrition, and personal safety are daily issues.

Even if you help them pursue their passions, they will not be engaged all the time. 

They need compassion and grace, not gimmicks. Sometimes, that project isn’t the most important thing.

They need love and understanding. Sometimes, math isn’t more important.

If you want a kid to care about his learning, he needs to know you care about him. We KNOW this. I just don’t think we’re always that good at PRACTICING it.

Don’t fall for the gimmicks. Remember that kids are human. Remember you are, too.

12 thoughts on “The Myth of Engagement

  1. Thanks for the reminder. Just a thought. Engagement can’t be 100% even in a perfect world, can it? The brain needs breaks after a time being fully engaged. It’s okay to take small mental a d physical breaks from engaging and rigorous work.

    Thanks again for bringing the conversation back to what’s really important.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Michael, exactly. That’s really what I was trying to communicate with this post. Regardless of the activity, even if kids are super excited about it, most kids can’t stay engaged 100% of the time without some mental break. Adults can’t do it… why should we expect kids? Those breaks are as important as the focus on the work!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Yes, we are humans too. If teachers ever want to see this in action, all they need to do is observe an all PD or faculty meeting. Some teachers look engaged or taking notes but their minds are 100 miles away or they are making a “to do list” for later. Others cannot sit still. We know we do this as adults but tend to forget kids do the same. I agree with you that the key is to remember kids are human. Engagement is personal and many factors come into play. As teachers we need to know our kids and like you said “give them grace and compassion”.

    • Michelle Baldwin


      YES! I remember watching teachers in required PD sessions completely checking out, reading newspapers, etc. If the learning isn’t meaningful or relevant to adults, they feel entitled to check out. Why do we force kids to stay engaged in something that doesn’t mean anything to them?

      Many people will argue that adults have already “learned” the important things in their education – and that children should be forced to do the same. I argue that adults suffered through it and are able to recognize it as such now. Why keep making the same mistakes?

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Michelle, this really made me think about the teacher I was 10 years ago. I used to think exactly that, “If you just get kids excited about learning, they will be engaged.” I worked so hard to keep kids excited and entertained. I was a good teacher but I never understood that excitement does not always translate into learning and understanding. I am grateful for that lesson now.
    In Alberta, schools have been tackling the issue of engagement for many years through their school based research programs (AISI) and by using tools like the Tell them From Me survey. Over and over in conversation teachers are asking, how can we get students engaged in our content? I can’t help but wonder if we are asking the wrong question. Why should students engage with content? Shouldn’t they engage with each other in a social space? Shouldn’t they engage with authentic problems that they both define and solve? Content isn’t king for me and the more I explore the idea of engaging, the more I believe that true engagement is a social construct, not a content contact. Know the student as a human, know yourself and be compassionate to both.

    • Michelle Baldwin


      “…engagement is a social construct, not a content contact.”

      Yes, yes, yes!

      One of the things we talk about often at school is how we help our kids care about the things that we know to be important. Caring about your learning is a personal and social issue, and much less about the content itself.


  4. A simple, beautiful post. Made my Sunday night 🙂

  5. Cindy Valdez-Adams

    Great insights. The same can be applied to school culture. As teachers, we often forget to get to know each other. Sometime people are even too ‘engrossed’ in what they’re doing that they forget to say ‘hello’ – or even smile. If we fail to make connections with all personnel at school, we fail to engage them in having substantive conversations, we fail to challenge current practices that aren’t working therefore, we fail to make changes that need to be changed. I understand to FAIL is not such a bad thing, but do we really want to fail at being able to make connections with our peers? To build this deep understanding that we must respect our differences in order to be able to trust one another.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks for your comment, Cindy!

      We have 11 people in our teaching/leadership staff, so we all know and interact with each other A LOT. It’s been one of the great advantages of teaching in our school.

      I’m so glad that you brought up this point, because I often forget that some people are teaching in schools so much larger. It becomes an institution, and that makes relationships more difficult to develop.

      Great points here! Thank you!

  6. Thanks Michelle. You’ve nailed the issue to the wall. As a Curriculum Coordinator with a post grad in eLearning and now as an Adviser, my mantra to staff is simple. The teacher selects the most appropriate tools to support the pedagogy being used. eLearning should not be a replacement pedagogy. Bad pedagogy transferred to a virtual environment is still bad pedagogy. If anything it magnifies it. Once online, even if only viewable to the class, others such as parents will see it. My concern is that we have made engagement the holy grail of Education. Since teaching began it has always been about engagement. As you correctly observed, this is the hook to make them ready to learn. Once you’ve got them, what are you going to do to help them learn the material. We teach people not just content. The hurdles kids overcome to get to school are huge. I think of a student that came to school barefoot because his uncle needed the shoes for a court appearance. What we need is work on formulating authentic 21st century pedagogies that take in what we know from eLearning, Cognitive Neuroscience, Educational research and Teacher experience.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      David, thank you so much for your comment!

      I like your “holy grail” analogy, and it’s so true. As educators and edu-pundits seek that magic cure for how to “fix” education, the problems and solutions become over-simplified. It’s not easy. There’s no one answer. Kids are not receptacles into which we pour information.

      Our job as educators is to welcome them in as they are and help them realize their dreams and potential. It’s challenging, messy, and altogether wonderful when you can help a kid grow from where they were at the beginning of the school year. Best part of teaching!

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