Active Engagement: It's Not An Add-On

When we first began partnering with schools and supporting teachers in engaging students, we ran into an interesting phenomenon.  Many of the teachers would continue to teach as they always had and then stop and insert one of the strategies they had learned.  Seeing this from the outside, it had a feel of “teach a little, engage a little” and then back to teaching. It often felt as disjointed to students as it did to us as classroom visitors.  The expectation of seamless integration was not taking hold. Since that time, we have learned a great deal from the amazing teachers we have worked with over the years.  Three of these lessons include: the importance of a shared definition of active engagement; an understanding that active engagement is intentionally and seamlessly embedded throughout learning activities; and changes in student cognition must occur in order for solid engagement and learning to occur.  Taken together, these three components positively impact student outcomes.

We know to make a positive impact on student learning outcomes, we need to change and address the experiences students have within the classroom.  This starts with how students are asked to engage with the content, the teacher, and each other.  When students are actively engaged, they move beyond compliant behavior to that type of thinking and responding that helps embed information and skills long-term.   This distinction led to a common definition that we use with all our partnering schools:

Students are on task, interested in the work, and they are actively processing information (listening, reading, thinking, making) and/or communicating information (speaking, performing, writing).

This shared definition allows us to create a common lens and language as we coach and think together with both leaders and teachers.  Conversations then become targeted to think about how we ensure all aspects of our instruction support students to actively engage in the content.

Envision this scenario: Two neighboring freshmen teachers of the same content, Greg and Jean, prepared their students to dive deeply into a new unit of study. Both teachers began and ended their unit at the same time, and both teachers gave a common assessment to determine student mastery of relevant standards. However, student performance on the common assessment revealed a surprising disparity: Greg’s students drastically outperformed Jean’s!  

Students in Jean’s classroom consistently followed directions and completed academic tasks on time. All of them completed their reading and assignments, and dutifully completed their bellwork each day. They copied notes from a PowerPoint presentation as Jean lectured about the content of the unit. They were also riveted when watching high quality film clips that provided demonstrations and examples. Despite all of these activities, student performance fell short of expectations.

Students in Greg’s classroom had different experiences, and thus, different outcomes. His students also completed the readings and assignments on time, yet the bellwork assignments asked students to personally connect with the content, providing alternate outcomes and textual evidence to support their thinking.  During a similar lecture to that presented in Jean’s classroom, students had several opportunities to turn-and-talk about the content and pose additional questions or wonderings.  While watching the video clips, students were asked to take notes to compare and contrast the demonstrations and examples provided.  After participating in these instructional opportunities, Greg’s students demonstrated a significantly higher degree of mastery than those in Jean’s room.

The difference, our research and experience tells us, is in the active engagement opportunities that were planned and implemented by the teacher. Students in Jean’s classroom were compliant; they completed a multitude of learning activities and met Jean’s expectations in doing so. While this on-task behavior is a necessary indicator of educational success as defined by our evidence-based Engagement, Alignment, Rigor Classroom Visit Protocol, it is only one of many. A second indicator- active engagement as defined above- is displayed in the activities outlined in Greg’s classroom. Students were asked to actively process information and then communicate that thinking with others.  Greg’s activities show a level of purposeful planning that helped move students beyond compliance to active engagement with the content, the teacher, and each other. 

Students in Greg’s classroom were also engaged in the learning in a way that allows for a change, or delta, to take place with the information.  The “output”, or student work expected (be that oral or written), has in some way undergone a change from the original “input” of information.  Students are asked to process, deconstruct, and analyze information to synthesize meaning for themselves that sticks and allows them to use it in novel situations.  Without this level of engagement, the level of learning may not get to the depth we desire for our students and what’s needed to ensure they are college-career ready.

In the scenarios above, Jean’s students ended up being passive participants, while Greg’s were active thinkers. Jean’s students were merely asked to absorb new learning; Greg’s were asked to provide evidence of their changes in thinking. 

How, then, might today’s educators ensure that their students are actively engaged in the learning? We outline a few broad considerations below:

1.      Plan it!

a.      Plan opportunities throughout the learning that allow students to personally engage with the content and extend their thinking

b.      Craft high-complexity prompts constructed around the content

c.      Include meaningful opportunities for students to demonstrate their thinking


2.      Expect it!

a.      Craft “ground rules” or “norms” of the classroom and cooperative groups that encourage active engagement of all students

b.      Create a culture where there is a consistent expectation to share thinking, collaborate on tasks, and take academic risks

c.      Foster routine collaboration that is not void of individual accountability


3.      Inspect it!

a.      Use Varied Levels of Interaction© to promote individual accountability and engagement with peers

 i.     Student-to-Self: Provide wait time for students to process information and formulate their own thoughts (think time for students)

ii.     Student-to-Student: Provide time to share and discuss thinking in pairs, triads, or fours   

iii.     Student-to-Class: Ensure accountability for the previous interactions by:

1. Asking students to share small-group thinking with the large group so that it might be reinforced or corrected

2. Ask students to create written summaries of the group interaction, so that the teacher may collect data on student understanding and adjust instruction

These broad considerations can help teachers to think purposefully about maximizing active engagement in their classrooms. For more specific strategies, as well as to see how our research and experience might benefit your school system, please contact us.

The Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization, is dedicated to improving educational experiences and outcomes of all children, especially those in underserved areas. We engage with foundations, school districts, government agencies, community organizations, collaboratives, and individual investors to promote educational and social changes benefitting children and youth.