Picture a student-centered classroom full of inquiry and engagement. Seventh-grade students are in groups—some students are around a computer conducting a virtual lab, others are working with their teacher reading an informational text about the phases of the moon, and others are on the floor exploring interactive glossary terms with an iPad.
The principal walks in and is amazed by what she sees. She comments on the powerful use of digital tools and level of student engagement. Only I knew what lurked below the surface of this classroom. What the principal viewed as effective instruction, I saw as a failure in my work as a coach.
I had worked with this middle school teacher in the planning and preparation of the lesson a few days before, and the planning process had been challenging for me as a coach. The teacher was excited about the possibilities of Discovery Education Techbook and wanted to dive into its interactive resources because she knew they would engage her students. While I shared her excitement, the instructional coach in me was concerned. I tried instead to guide her toward determining what she wanted her students to understand and be able to do at the completion of the lesson. She needed to let that essential information guide her toward choosing the right resources within Techbook.
Our coaching conversation took place in a 40-minute block, so the teacher was tasked with completing the lesson plan on her own. Unfortunately, the lesson had no clear learning targets or outcomes. Students were working in stations that were unrelated to one another. There was no unity or cohesion, and the work didn’t push students toward deep understanding of the scientific content. On the surface, however, it looked fantastic because middle school students were so engaged in the work.
What this example illustrates is the superficial engagement we see too often in schools. How do we as leaders support our teachers in creating routine learning opportunities that promote authentic student engagement?
We must first dig deeply into our existing definitions and perceptions of student engagement. Traditionally, we deemed students “engaged” when they were on task, participatory, and well behaved. While we’d love to see this occur in all of our classrooms, we must set our expectations for student engagement much higher.
In an Educational Leadership article, Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda cited four keys to student engagement:
- Clarity—What am I asking students to do?
- Context—Why is it important?
- Culture—How do I show my support?
- Challenge—How do I balance challenge and skill?
While these four elements are equally important, I see most teachers and school leaders struggling to grasp the balance between challenge and skill. Jackson and Zmuda go on to describe how teachers can ensure this balance exists for all students. Their descriptors for this key factor of student engagement connect to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset—focus on effort rather than ability, know that you can get smarter, use feedback to promote growth, and build academic stamina and resilience. We’ve read the research and we know these are important habits we want all middle school students to develop. However, putting this theory into action can be a daunting task for any school administrator faced with the complexities and demands of college and career readiness standards.
How Challenging Tasks Foster Student Engagement
There is no secret to student engagement in the Common Core era. The standards and the pedagogical shifts demanded of today’s students make it pretty clear for us. Building complex learning experiences, where students are routinely thinking at high levels, interacting with their peers, and receiving careful guidance and support from their teachers, is what grounds authentic engagement.
This type of cognitive engagement promotes productive struggle and helps teachers create an environment where students feel safe taking risks, because they know the nature of the work doesn’t allow them to earn an A on the first try. This is especially important to consider at the middle school level, where a desire to earn points has not only been ingrained, but expected.
Teachers can’t focus on their students’ efforts and help them understand they can improve if they’re using traditional approaches to learning. Assigning vocabulary or comprehension questions are both good examples of such traditional tasks that students work to compliantly complete. As school leaders, we must support teachers in building deeper tasks that challenge students and prompt them to want to acquire new knowledge and skills.
This type of cognitive engagement can be accomplished in classrooms if teachers have the support and guidance of their administrators. Here are four steps you can take to help:
- Remind teachers to use the standards in their planning. Teachers cannot create complex learning experiences that aren’t aligned to the expectations of their grade-level standards. Help teachers gain a comprehensive understanding of what each standard is asking students to do, and support them in using the standards to create lesson plans, learning tasks, and assessments. The standards should guide every instructional move in the classroom.
- Emphasize the value and importance of formative assessment. If we want middle school students to feel comfortable taking risks and failing, we need to provide consistent opportunities for them to do so while giving meaningful feedback along the way. This shifts the traditional learning cycle from “teach, test, reteach” to “learn, attempt, retry.” This isn’t an easy habit for most teachers to embrace, because it’s not aligned to what we’ve always done. Teachers will need support with managing both student and parent expectations related to this new way of learning.
- Encourage teachers and students to embrace the silence. Most students are unaccustomed to being asked to consistently think at high levels. Answering one rich, text-dependent question or solving a complex math task in a 45-minute block is much different than responding to 10 questions at the end of a chapter, receiving points, and then moving on. This shift will feel awkward for middle school students and teachers, and there will be uncomfortable moments of silence. This isn’t a bad thing—help teachers understand that this silence affords students the time and space needed to think.
- Ensure curriculum clarity. Articulate the importance of the depth of instruction with less emphasis on what needs to be “covered.” If we want teachers to promote cognitive engagement in their classrooms, they will undoubtedly need to slow down. Let them know this is not only accepted, but that it’s an encouraged approach to teaching and learning. If teachers are worried about coverage, they’ll be afraid to take the instructional risks necessary to help their middle school students become independent thinkers and problem solvers.
Engagement with Cognitive Impact
Engagement has become a buzzword that is grossly overused and misinterpreted in education. A traditional strategy—numbered heads, for example—certainly promotes active engagement in the classroom by keeping students on their toes, and digital learning tools like Kahoot! and Socrative engage students because they’re fun and interactive. However, it’s clear that these practices do not encourage the deep teaching and learning we want to see in our middle school classrooms.
It’s our responsibility to help teachers move beyond superficial engagement and support them in creating cognitively engaging environments for all students.
Jaime LaForgia is the director of professional development content at Discovery Education.
 Jackson, R., & Zmuda, A. (2014). Four (secret) keys to student engagement. Educational Leadership, 72(1) 18-24.