Engagement in, as and for Learning

What if all students were engaged in their learning in all classes and realised their own power in improving this learning?
What would that look like? How can we make it happen more often?


This year, I have been fortunate to be involved in AITSL’s Learning Frontiers project. Learning Frontiers (Australia) grew out of Learning Futures (UK). Valerie Hannon of the UK’s Innovation Unit is heavily invested. You can hear more about the UK’s project here and read about the Australian one here.

The above questions are the guiding questions for my school’s investigation into improving students’ cognitive engagement. Cognitive engagement can be understood as a student’s psychological investment in their own learning, how actively engaged they are in what they are doing, how invested they are in it.

This is the hardest to detect from behaviours alone – it is “not just students doing things but it is something happening inside their heads”. When cognitively engaged, students concentrate, focus on achieving goals, are flexible in their work and cope with failure. This is different from high performance: a student who is performing well may still be disengaged if they are coasting and not motivated to exert themselves more than is necessary to get by.

Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. Researchers from the University of Western Sydney have described the difference as being ‘in-task’, not just ‘on-task’.

Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to continue beyond the end of lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had ended – what Csikszentmihalyi has described as being in ‘Flow’. Students display persistence, even in difficulty: a deeply engaged student becomes confident in their own ability to succeed, through persistence. As one Learning Futures student put it:“..you’ve got to figure it out for yourself ‘cos if people just told you, you’d just find it an easy life, but life is full of obstacles and stuff, and you’ve got to work through them yourself and make your own mistakes”

Students’ learning ‘leaks’ out of school: a student may frequently choose to continue with their task or project beyond school – in their homes, either with friends, or alone. Students are able to positively ‘connect’ their learning : deeply engaged students often display ‘expert’ characteristics – especially if they are engaged in project or enquiry learning.

Students begin to think and act, like scientists, or engineers, and can independently ‘join up’ learning from one context to another. In the words of another interviewee: ‘I make links between everything, so I can tell a story, or relate it to something that happened, and that’s how I really learn’. This adaptive competence, the ability to construct and contextualise their own learning, is in sharp contrast to the ‘bite-size’ knowledge acquisition, that typifies much of current conventional pedagogy.

We want our students to be more cognitively engaged in their learning, not only compliant learners. Compliance engagement is if students:

  • Attend regularly
  • Conform to behavioural norms
  • Complete work in the manner requested and submit on time
  • Are ‘on-task’
  • Respond to questioning

 Notes From Nina is a blog that I follow and a recent post has also pursued an engagement theme that is well worth reading here. She has titled it Engaging Students in Learning, not just Schooling. In this post she writes:

The learning process has two components that must be integrated for deep learning to happen: interaction (with the materials and peers) and acquisition of the content (Illeris, 2009, p. 9).  A successful integration of content and interaction leads to personal construction of understanding, i.e. deep learning, because the student has situated the new knowledge into her/his existing understanding.  Another student, who is just engaged in schooling not learning, may miss out the both components, and just be physically present in the classroom. Yet in today’s world, more than ever before, we must help students to become lifelong learners, who learn because they want to, not because someone tells them to do so….

In addition to the two components of learning process, we also want to think about the dimensions of cognition, emotion and environment (Illeris, 2004, p. 82), because they create the frames of each individual learning experience.  In school settings the focus of learning is too often very narrow, and only aims to transfer the content knowledge. But the way we acquire the content  has a straightforward effect on how durable the resulted learning is.  Shallow learning aims to passing the class or just getting out of it. Deep learning aims for understanding, and using the learned content in the future. What is problematic, is strategic learning, which aims to have good grades, without any interest in the content itself.

Christopher Bantick’s recent article  describes what he believes quality schooling looks like. “Truly great schools focus on academic success” he writes. In Australia, this is evidenced by NAPLAN results (national tests in literacy and numeracy) and ATAR rankings (a summation at the end of secondary schooling based on final year exams) . He goes on to state that “Parents want their children to have access to the best possible teaching to gain access to desirable universities”.

So what is a quality education? Is ‘schooling’ equivalent to ‘educating’? Is the only purpose of a secondary education to provide access to university? What does ‘academic success’ look like? Does it look the same for every student? For every school? Should we look to China as an exemplar on how to improve academic success?

We know that there is, what Pasi Sahlberg, amongst others, has termed GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement. A movement that has, as its key elements:

  1. Standardising teaching and learning
  2. A focus on literacy and numeracy
  3. Teaching a prescribed curriculum
  4. Borrowing market-oriented reform ideas
  5. Test-based accountability and control[1]

Many of these elements have an economic rational basis, especially the use of standardized tests.  “The fault is not with the mathematics, or with the importance attached to what the tests are attempting to measure. It is in the way we are reducing our sense of accomplishment in education, as we do in economics, to ‘equations, graphs, numbers and formulas’. [The fault] is in the reduction of the worth of education to mathematics”[2]

Michael Fullan has led those who have analysed the effectiveness of GERM in driving educational change and has come to the conclusion that these are, in fact, the wrong drivers to produce effective and sustainable change that improve learning outcomes for students. In his 2011 seminal paper on ‘wrong drivers’ versus ‘right drivers’ [3], Fullan describes a ‘right driver’ as one that achieves better measurable results for students. He suggests four criteria to judge a driver’s effectiveness. Does it

  1. foster motivation of teachers and students;
  2. engage educators and students in continuous improvement;
  3. inspire team work; and
  4. affect all teachers and students?

The key to success is to place educators and students at the centre. This means aligning the goals of any change agenda and the intrinsic motivation of participants.

Last year I attended the launch of the book by Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks called The Self-Transforming School. The authors and their team have looked at the research on education coming out of 11 countries throughout the world and explored the experiences that are shaping educational theory and practice, in addition to systemic practices, including resourcing arrangements, of various governments. They use this research to point towards the trends and practices they see developing in education for the next 25 years and then discuss how we can ensure significant, sustained and systematic change that will secure success for all students regardless of school setting.

They ask the question: What beliefs and practices will produce the best outcomes for students?

The authors qualified the use of the term ‘outcomes’. In education, this is not equivalent to ‘endpoints’ such as Y12 results (or similar). It is the difference between starting points and endpoints. So, I would argue that ‘academic success’ is defined by this difference. In fact, I would argue that ANY learning can be defined by this difference, including that of professional learners like teachers.

What are the outcomes we want for our students? Are we reducing our idea of the worth of education by focusing on results in isolation of other metrics of growth – such as the development of an increased capacity to unlearn and then relearn, learn through the instructional design of mistake-making & deal with challenge or the dispositions to think critically and creatively? In our quest to attain best, and then ‘next’, practice, I would posit that we endeavour to see beyond the somewhat short term and contained (perhaps even ‘containing’?) metrics of test performances and look to aspects of education that place educators’ and students’ learning at the centre.

If Australia wants to position itself as a ‘self-transforming’ nation and aim, not merely for ‘best practice’ but ‘next practice’ then I would suggest that our focus should be more on the elements of teaching and learning that develop and support quality learners, both in our teaching and our learning. Caldwell and Spinks write, we need to ‘see ahead’, ‘see behind’ (honouring and extending accomplishments in the past), ‘see above’ (understanding the policy context and the evidence-based global perspectives), ‘see below’ (demonstrating a deep understanding of the needs, interests, motivations and aspirations of its students and staff),‘see beside’ (networking professional knowledge to take account of best practice in other schools and settings) and ‘see beyond’ (seeking out what aspects will lead to ‘next practice’)[4]

Yong Zhao writes in the introduction to his latest book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World :

The Chinese national educational system has won high praise as an efficient system with national standards, a national curriculum, a high states test (the college entrance exam), and a clearly defined set of gateways to mark students’ transitions from one stage to another[3]. Admirers note that every Chinese student has a clear and focused goal to pursue; Chinese teachers and parents know exactly what to do to help their students; and the government knows exactly which schools are doing well. What those admirers ignore is the fact that such an education system, while being an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn, is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create.

I wrote this book to show how China, a perfect incarnation of authoritarian education, has produced the world’s best test scores at the cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents. I also tried to illustrate how difficult it is to move away from authoritarian thinking, by showing how China has struggled to reform its education for over a century. The book is intended to warn Western countries about the dangerous consequences of educational authoritarianism.

Readers may also want to read the blog post by Anthony Cody here on Zhao’s book.


Speaking at the ACEL (Australian Council of Educational Leaders) conference this week, Richard Gerver said “”Australia seems to have lost confidence in what it had, which was essentially an enviable vision for the future of education”. (See this article for more). He decries looking to other countries as exemplars. Further, in this recent post, the author, asks “Who decided schools are broken?” Who, indeed.

As leaders of learning, we need to ensure our voices are heard in this space. Another recent post on Notes from Nina‘s blog  talks about the importance of leadership in education. She writes:

My favourite definition of leadership is this:

Leadership is about leading others towards an imaginary future.

It is not easy, because we don’t actually know what is there.  But, by having sufficient knowledge and data, we can make educated guesses about it. Effective leadership in education is about engaging the whole team to improve educational outcomes

The other hard, but oh so important step in leadership is to move the focus and action from what is urgent to what is important. In classroom this means teaching and learning for life, not for test (this also can be seen as engaging indeep learning).

A major part of my daily work is about my attempts to provide leadership and  empower my students to step up on the plate and be in charge of their own learning and meaning-making.

So, Team Australia, what do we want for our nation’s future? Let’s take an educative, lighthouse stance, celebrate what we are doing well in educating young people to have agency and the capacity to create their future and shine our light for all to see.

[1] Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg, Teachers College Press, 2011, p 103

[2] The Self Transforming School by Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks, Routledge, 2013, p 97

[3] http://www.michaelfullan.ca/media/13396088160.pdf


[4] The Self Transforming School by Brian Caldwell and Jim Spinks, Routledge, 2013, p 115



About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Pedagogy, Students, Systems, The profession, Things that engage, Vision. Bookmark the permalink.

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