10 Highlights on Engagement

My book The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies is a continuation of my first book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal). Of course, I can’t make everyone who reads the second book read the first book, but I wanted to find a way to help readers of the second book get up-to-speed with what was in the first book. To do this, I created a list of ten highlights from Engagement is Not a Unicorn which I’m sharing with you here. While you can dive into these highlights, you may also want to check out my previous blog post, Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal) to explain the Engagement Continuum and the Engagement Matrix. Either way, the ideas below help to set the stage for making schools places where all members of the school community can be engaged!


1. Remember Goldilocks. The first question we need to ask when someone is being non-compliant is whether or not the task they’re supposed to be doing is within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). If the task is too easy, the person will refuse due to disinterest. If the task is too hard, the person will refuse to complete the task due to discouragement.

2. Though the variables that would create the shift to higher or lower levels of engagement are the same for everyone, not everyone responds the same way to those variables. It’s easy to say that to go from non-compliant to compliant would require a change in someone’s relationship with the consequence or the person assigning the task. However, what it takes to change the relationship will vary from person to person. That’s what’s hard—trying to identify and respond to the variables needed to engage someone else.

3. In the book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), I describe how each level of engagement has at least three different ways that level can manifest itself.


Understanding the manifestation can assist you in understanding the motivation behind the behavior and what might be needed in order to shift to a different level of engagement. Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal) describes each level on the Engagement Continuum in great detail, gives examples of what each looks like in action, and provides strategies to help move from the left to the right side of The Continuum.

4. Compliance can feel like a victory (and it is) if someone was previously non-compliant. Nevertheless, compliance should not be the stopping point since compliant people are still disengaged. Since working with someone who is behaving non-compliantly can feel so defeating, it’s not surprising that it feels good to have a previously non-compliant person become compliant. That shift is certainly worth celebrating because it is growth. There is a difference, however, between growth and attainment. Growth means you’re on your way whereas attainment means you’ve arrived. Never mistake compliant behavior for engagement. It is not. Compliance is simply a disengaged person who is extrinsically motivated to do the task.


5. Be on the lookout for people who are compliant with behaviors but are non-compliant with the learning. In far too many classrooms, as long as students are compliant with the behavioral expectations (think stay in your seat, do not shout out, etc.) they can be non-compliant with the learning expectations (think read silently, work with a partner, etc). Why? Students who are quiet and do not disrupt the learning of others can fall through the learning cracks passively or actively because they do not draw negative attention to themselves. If you only (or mostly) call on students who raise their hands, for example, students learn that they will not be called on if they do not raise their hands or that they should only raise their hand if they know the answer. A better approach would be to randomly call on students (see the strategy, “Equity Sticks” in the book Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It’s a Narwhal]). Keeping students on their toes and ready to answer any question based on chance makes learning required (rather than voluntary) and will lead to more students being engaged.


6. The easiest way to bolster engagement is to change the task. If you are with people who are compliant, meaning they will do the task but they don’t really want to do it, then they need to make a shift towards the right of the Engagement Matrix to become truly engaged. The way to move right is by changing the task. For example, let’s say the task is to write an essay that identifies three factors that contributed to the American Civil War. Most students will certainly do that task, but few will cross the threshold into interested. If you reflect on what you are trying to ascertain in the writing of the essay, you will acknowledge that the purpose of the task is to have students demonstrate their knowledge of factors that contributed to the American Civil War. If this is the outcome, the task could be to write an essay, but it doesn’t have to be. If given even two minutes to brainstorm alternative possibilities in how students could demonstrate their knowledge, I would guess any one person (teacher or not) could create a list of at least ten different possibilities. While changing the task might seem a little self-evident at first, classrooms often default to the tried and true, the known and familiar. Essays, end-of-chapter questions, worksheets, etc. are common compliance pitfalls and teachers accept that though boring, these products get the job done. The goal of engagement is more than getting the job done—it’s about enjoying the job. And, who doesn’t want to enjoy their work?


7. If you can’t change the task, at least offer choice and/or voice. I know it sounds simplistic to say, “Change the task and you will have more engagement.” Some people reading this will roll their eyes and get defensive, retorting, “What if I can’t change the task?!” It is true there are times when a task cannot be changed. Even for adults, there are mundane and unpleasant tasks that are unavoidable. We all have to pay our taxes, do laundry, and mow the grass. If given the opportunity to opt out of these tasks, many of us would. Our students have to take tests, do homework, and pass certain courses to go on to the next grade and, ultimately, graduate. Like I said, there are times when a task cannot be changed.


The academic goal of the work in schools is for students to achieve the standards. While we have little to no control over the standards, we have a great deal of control over what students can do to demonstrate their achievement of the standards. Going back to the idea of paying taxes, the government does not care how you do your taxes—if you hire an accountant or if you do them yourself, if you do them on paper or electronically. There are many choices available to you regarding how you do your taxes even if you don’t have a choice about doing them (assuming you’re at least compliant). Now apply this thinking to schools. We need to think about how we can provide as much choice and voice to students in how they are doing their work even if we cannot provide a choice or voice about doing it.


8. Interested people enjoy what they are doing temporarily and they still need extrinsic motivation to maintain their interest. Interested people will stop doing interesting work when given the chance to stop. For example, when the bell rings, how do the students react? Interested students pack up and leave even if they were enjoying the work they were doing before the bell rang. Is the project that they have been working on for weeks now over? Interested people will move on to the next assignment—they will not continue learning more about the project even if there is much more that could be learned. Interested people will do their homework, classwork, etc. but if you allow them to stop doing it, they will stop.


But wait, there’s more. Interested people need extrinsic consequences to do the task. Sure, they will do the task to please you (relationship) or get the grade (consequence) but if you said, “You are not going to disappoint me if you don’t do this” or “This task is ungraded,” what would happen? If they’re only interested, they will stop. I might as well do the task that is graded or Are you sure you won’t mind if I stop? It’s not that I don’t like doing this, but I would prefer to do X… Interested people are temporarily willing to do the task but only as long as they are rewarded for their efforts.


9. No one is capable of being absorbed in everything all the time. Where interested people will stop, absorbed people persist. You have to tell absorbed people to put away their work because you’ve moved on. Take away the extrinsic motivator for the absorbed person and they may not even notice because they were never doing it for that anyway—they are intrinsically motivated. When people are absorbed, time passes differently. An hour can feel like ten minutes and it still feels like you want more time. The work you’re doing is challenging but you are in-the-zone and feel fueled by the task. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” as described in the book by the same name.

What does that look like in school? Absorbed students come into class and tell the teacher the things they learned on their own because they went home and looked it up. Absorbed students are still talking about the lesson days after it is over. Absorbed students may seek out others who are like them or hide in the background because they feel like they are in the margins. In schools, much of what students find absorbing happens outside of the general content—it’s the clubs, the extra-curriculars, the activities that take place before- or after-school that are never graded. It’s the tasks that students have to raise money for or earn in some way. That doesn’t mean that the classroom isn’t a prime location for absorption, but it does mean that it’s not the only place.


10. Being absorbed doesn’t mean the task is easy, it means the task has the appropriate level of challenge and reward—both for failure and success. Remember, to be absorbed means that you are willing to do the task beyond the point that you are able to stop; it is not limited to a timeframe. As well, tasks that are absorbing are those that require persistence because we cannot achieve the highest levels of success the first time we attempt that task. If we did, the task would be too easy and we would lose interest. Tasks that are absorbing are those that require us to be gritty for the very fact that we will need to (a) devote a great deal of time and effort to it before we achieve the end goal and (b) because we will need to be resilient since we will experience failure along the way.


I hope these highlights get you hooked into thinking about your own school differently. If you’re interested in learning more and learning strategies that will help you build engagement in your school, please check out The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies and Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal)


About the Author

Heather Lyon’s is the author of Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal): Mind-Changing Theory and Strategies that will Create Real Engagement and The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies. Heather has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and an Ed.M. in Reading from the University at Buffalo. She is an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology for Lewiston-Porter Central School District in Western New York. Heather has been a staff developer and held various administrative titles, but the professional title she likes best is learner. She is also a proud wife and mother who values the importance of work/life balance—which is so critical in a profession like ours. Heather lives with her husband and three children, who make her smile and teach her the importance of patience and humor!

Twitter @LyonsLetters and visit her website www.LyonsLetters.com.










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