Engaging Your Students: Mind, Heart, Hands-On Learning

October 28, 2021

In our experience supporting schools around the country in their pursuit of excellent and equitable teaching, school leaders and educators often cite lack of student engagement as the biggest problem they’re facing within their classrooms and school communities. Data supports this anecdotal evidence and in fact, shows a disturbing trend. Not only is student engagement a focus for many school communities, but it gets more difficult over time. According to Gallup survey data, nearly 75% of fifth-graders report high levels of engagement but by high school that number drops to closer to 33%. That’s an alarming drop in engagement over the course of a student’s educational journey and certainly indicates a need to better understand why this happens and how to address it.

That’s why we are excited to release our Framework for Teaching (FFT) Focus Guide on Intellectual Engagement this month. In this guide we explore the components of the FFT that are most directly connected to the intellectual engagement of students, including Component 3c, “Engaging Students in Learning,” which is often referred to as the “heart” of the Framework. Successful learning happens when students are actively engaged intellectually, behaviorally, and emotionally. In the FFT Focus Guide on Intellectual Engagement, we share our current thinking and suggested strategies related to this  topic. In this post we provide a preview of the resources in our new guide.

Why are most students not engaged?

When we don’t attend to the individual needs of each of our students, then student engagement becomes much more challenging. Educators and school leaders often think of student engagement in terms of the activity or task in the lesson plan or unit. But in reality, student engagement begins with our understanding of our students – their academic strengths, interests, cultural backgrounds, and individual needs. When we don’t have that understanding, we struggle to select texts or craft lessons that are relevant and engaging. Students are far less likely to engage when the content that surrounds them doesn’t require critical thinking, lacks any connection to their identity, or doesn’t spark curiosity and joy.

Knowing this, we must prioritize whole child development and knowing and valuing every student in a classroom. Only when educators do this can they create an environment that is stimulating, challenging, and within the appropriate zone of development for all students to grow as learners. 

Educators must invest time and energy in getting to know the children in their classrooms, something that can get harder as students get older and many educators shift from teaching single classrooms of 20-30 students to multiple classrooms where they interact with hundreds of students on a weekly (or even daily) basis. This could explain part of the reason intellectual engagement becomes more challenging over time, but it’s still not an impossible problem to solve.

What is Intellectual Engagement?

If intellectual engagement is not about particular tasks or activities, then what is it? Intellectual engagement is holistic – it is a cognitive, behavioral, and emotional process that you cultivate for every student. When we talk about student engagement, we often place the ownership on getting students to engage with us. When we talk about intellectual engagement, we add in the perspective that as much as we want students to engage with educators, we also must think about how educators engage with students.

Intellectual engagement is complex. When you know and value students, you are constantly weaving together their academic level, social and emotional needs, identity, and personal learning style. Doing this creates a unique combination of curiosity, interest, and optimism and leads to environments where students are actively thinking, immersed in learning, and driving their own development.

How do educators create it?

Most school leaders and educators can recognize intellectually engaged students when they see them, but it’s much more difficult to actually break down what it takes to make that engagement happen. In our guide, we focus on unpacking the conditions for making intellectual engagement possible in every classroom by outlining a clear, three-step process:

  1. Arranging for Learning: By beginning with knowing and valuing students, educators can authentically communicate the value in what students are learning. Lessons become not about the what but about the why. The value of tasks is translated into how they relate to students’ daily lives. Intentionally arranging the learning environment is the first step in creating intellectual engagement.
  2. Facilitating Engaging Learning Experiences: Once the environment is set, intellectual engagement is furthered when educators model the dispositions that accompany engagement. Showing students the thinking routines, emotional skill sets, and collaborative behaviors necessary for learning and persistence are key components to building self-sustaining, engaging environments.
  3. Engaging Students in Collaboration, Dialogue, & Critical Thinking: Finally, we must release the responsibility for learning and engagement to the students themselves. When we have arranged appropriately for their learning and modeled the behaviors necessary for engagement, we must step back and allow students to drive their own development. That is when intellectual engagement is truly happening. 

These three steps are critical for creating true intellectual engagement in classrooms and schools. If we provide the right conditions and if we are intentional about facilitating learning through modeling, then students can take over the responsibility for themselves. Our guide presents a theory of action for bringing this important topic to life, and we hope that it is the first step in helping solve one of the most frequent challenges we hear from the school leaders and educators in our community.

By Lee KappesMaria Akinyele, and Brian Johnson
The Danielson Group Team Members