A Pedagogy of Engagement

Several weeks ago, I saw that many of my teacher friends were sharing an article on Facebook.

The title?  “Your kids bored at school? Tell them to get over it.

Oh boy, I thought, and clicked on the link to see what it was that so many of my friends seemed to agree with.

This author’s argument is that student apathy is one of the biggest problems plaguing education; that teachers cannot be expected to “dazzle and awe” their students for fear of burnout; that students are now consumers and education is now a product, and that if students “aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they’re not buying.”

Hudgens–a high school teacher herself–thinks students shouldn’t be such choosy consumers, but should rather be self-motivated to find their own success at school.  “It’s a teacher’s job to make learning exciting,” she laments, but, “the world isn’t a video game…and doesn’t always offer fun and exciting paths…through life.”

While I agree with some of this author’s points, such as her goal for students to feel passion toward education and a motivation for life-long learning, I think her writing reflects a trend I’m seeing lately when it comes to the imprecision of language educators use when we talk about our goals for students.

969ceec4f3d8facdf86e9cd9a703dbf7There are a number of things Hudgens seems to conflate.  The first is that “this is hard” and “this is boring” are the same thing–and they’re clearly not.  When students are disengaged, either something is too hard, or too boring–not both. When they’re not in the zone of proximal development, students are not in a place for learning.

So whose job is it to get them there?

In my view, it is mine–a great principal once told me that “you are the only factor in the classroom you can control.”  This is true, and if you’ve ever been in front of 32 teenagers in 8th period, you know you can’t control much of anything in that scenario.

I believe fostering engagement is my job.  Once I can get kids hooked on a just-right book, or writing fluently in the zone of proximal development, and they catch the bug of feeling successful in their learning endeavors, engagement is self-sustaining.

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The second part of this author’s argument that I disagree with is her belief that students’ rejection of how education is “packaged” is due to their lack of self-motivation.  Research on Generation Edge shows that this just isn’t true–Gen Edgers reject standardized education and embrace progressive education because they find more value in the latter.  This means that one commenter on the article hit the nail on the head:

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I have to agree with this reader.  Students recognize, and reject, an old-school emphasis on sit and get.  In contrast, they embrace engagement when work is appropriately challenging and authentic.

My final issue with two ideas Hudgens seems to muddle is this one:

Unfortunately in a consumer-oriented educational system, words such as habit and discipline have all but gone by the wayside. We emphasize concepts like differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning and data-driven instruction over student responsibilities like organization, perseverance and hard work.

In no way would I ever believe that differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning, or data-driven instruction are not good practices for student learning.  Why are those placed on opposite ends of the spectrum from habit, discipline, organization, perseverance, and hard work?!  All of those things have a valuable place in our instruction.
Habit and discipline are concepts teachers should be teaching–I spend time with my students helping them to learn habits that will develop fluency in reading and writing, and once they feel empowered, they build their own habits of discipline and perseverance when they attempt to read challenging texts or write complex compositions of their choice, spurred by intrinsic motivation when they see what’s possible.
These are authentic habits of engaged students, not arbitrary habits of compliant kids pushing through things that are boring or meaningless like rote instruction often is.  The opposite of rote instruction is engaging, student-centered learningnot “fun” or “exciting” teaching whose purpose is to “dazzle and awe,” in the words of Hudgens.

To create self-motivated, lifelong learners, our goal must be engagement.  And a pedagogy of engagement is not the same thing as teaching that is “fun” or “exciting.”

The bottom line is:  when we design instruction with a pedagogy of engagement in mind, student self-motivation is the result.  Students do not need to “get over it” if they’re bored in school.  This is outmoded thinking.  Our learners have every right to reject the asymmetrical and arbitrary power imbalance of teachers over students, and demand high-quality instruction that is challenging, personal, and individualized.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.



8 thoughts on “A Pedagogy of Engagement

  1. Elizabeth Oosterheert April 9, 2017 at 1:01 am Reply

    Hi Shana,

    Thank you so much for this post. I love your thinking, and particularly your last lines where you insist that students do not need to “get over it” if they’re bored in school. Rather, they have every right to insist on a student-centered classroom that is infused with joy and purpose. It’s very time consuming and frequently exhausting to fully embrace a workshop model for teaching language arts, and to journey alongside students instead of teaching them the way that many of us were taught as teenagers, but it’s so worth it.
    Thanks again for being a source of wisdom and encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes May 1, 2017 at 6:38 am Reply

      Thanks, Elizabeth, for reading and commenting!! I agree it can be exhausting to workshop daily, but don’t you just love the exhaustion that comes after a busy day, rather than the kind that comes after a long and boring one? I know I do. 😉


  2. […] require effort and exertion.  They require pushing past the point of comfort (for both students and teachers), and sitting in the pain–not because you want to, but because you committed to […]


  3. […] wasn’t enough to teach with a pedagogy of engagement if what I was teaching didn’t match who I was teaching.  Similarly, it wasn’t enough […]


  4. Kionna LeMalle March 24, 2017 at 12:14 pm Reply

    Shana, thank you for this post. As I read it, every time I found myself thinking about what I would add to the discussion, you added it within the next few sentences. It was as though we were in the room together, completing each other’s sentences. I wholeheartedly agree with your ideas regarding engagement and the role we play. I think it is important to emphasize (as you did in bold print) that engagement is “not the same thing as teaching that is ‘fun’ or exciting.'” It is teaching that stimulates and stretches the brain to make new connections and ask new questions. To JR, I would add that there will always be students that demonstrate apathy. However, this is sometimes due to variables outside of the context of school that distract students and seem (and sometimes are) more urgent. Many students are dealing with major life issues that have them in survival mode at times, and they don’t always share this reality with us as teachers, so we can think they are disinterested when they are truly distracted by pressing issues in their own lives. Then, of course, there is the issue of emotional immaturity. Generally, teens have limited ability to regulate their moods when doing so is desirable and will contribute to their success. Perhaps some of the “apathy” we see from teens is a consequence of their lack of emotional maturity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 28, 2017 at 6:49 am Reply

      Thanks, Kionna! If only teaching existed in a vacuum, we could control for every variable and ensure that our students had the best environment for learning. In fact, we can’t, so we just have to do our best to hook our kids on learning with the time we have in classrooms each day.


  5. JR March 24, 2017 at 9:41 am Reply

    While I agree with all of your points; however, I am tired of the assumption that the problem with education is that students are rejecting, or bored with, the stand-and-deliver method of teaching. The current discussion among those who are pushing for education change, who engage in pedagogical inquirey accept the assumption that teachers lecture. I don’t know one teacher who lectures. All of my peers, spend hours and energy preparing project based learning, seminar opportunities, hands on activities, field trips, and more. Even with our most engaging learning opportunities students will still be apathetic. Even when the student learning activities are driven by student choice and couched in a growth mindset. I admit there are days when I feel like I need to produce the next generation of video game quality lesson and it becomes exhausting — leading to the invasion of “get over it” thoughts.


    • Shana Karnes March 24, 2017 at 9:55 am Reply

      JR, you make a good point–there is probably still some apathy when it comes to non-lecture methods, although I hear mostly about this pervasive disengagement in less student-centered classrooms. Unfortunately, I hear about way too many teachers who still do the old lecture and worksheet methods in my work with preservice teachers who are observing in schools.

      This makes me wonder if perhaps the problem is sometimes not with how things are being taught, but perhaps WHAT is being taught, in those particular classrooms. I’m not sure, but it’s something you’ve made me want to think more about.

      And you’re right–there will always be a few students the teaching doesn’t reach. Still, I believe that the only thing I can really change in my classroom is what and how I’m teaching, and with those things in mind I can do my best to design instruction that is engaging and provocative, and strives to reach students on a level that assumes all people want to learn because it’s one of the core human drives. If kids aren’t engaged in the learning, and I know it, all I can do is try something different.

      Thanks for your comment, which has me thinking further on this topic!


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