Engagement: not motivation, nor conformity

Engagement: not motivation, nor conformity

PRIME (PISA, reform, innovation, MOOC’s and engagement) figured strongly in our 2013 professional conversations about an education worth having. To a great extent the Learning Frontiers Project here in Australia drew so much of this together and galvanised significant support to envision and co-construct (with several key stakeholders) a meaningful and engagement-driven approach to learning redesign today and for tomorrow.

Pasi Sahlberg in ‘Finnish Lessons’ and David Price OBE in ‘OPEN’ suggest than an education with purpose see’s collaboration between teachers (even schools, districts and support agencies) as a key driver to centralising efforts in engaging young people in learning.  There is significant professional capital to be unlocked and harnessed if it is allowed to be politically and logistically, and if it is trusted. An engaging contemporary education must cater to the very different personal needs, aspirations and passions of students, rather than shoehorn them to conform to a prescribed system, and seek the best possible means to become a ‘networked campground’ (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2012).

Life Worthy Learning

If GELP (Global Education Leadership Programme) are accurate in their estimation that only 30% of students globally are fully engaged in learning, we might need to revisit what we consider ‘engagement’ to ‘generally’ be (see below) as very often ‘ritual’ or strategic’ compliance masquerades as engagement.


To achieve deeper engagement, different approaches are required. Engagement is often ambiguous, tough to define and therefore problematic to measure/quantify. However, it is more than one thing. Engagement in an educational context can be broadly divided into three areas:

Eng Types

(Canadian Education Association, 2012 – ‘What did you do in School Today?’)

Engagement is not a synonym for motivation or conformity. It also involves self-discovery, collaborative intent, it is attuned to emotional investment and personalised to embrace passion and interest – a lot of things PISA find difficult to measure. It is also rigorous, but not excessive to the detriment of wellbeing. Engagement in learning connects to real-world contexts, bringing relevance and horizontal connection to learning in other areas.

Students who are deeply engaged in learning often manifest 4 traits (GELP/Innovation Unit, 2013):

  • Care not just about the outcome but also the development of their learning
  • Bring discretionary energy to the learning task (s)
  • Take responsibility for their learning
  • Can locate the value of their learning beyond school, and wish to extend learning into the wider world

These notions challenge most views of what learning is, entails and is for. It also questions the balance of power and control held by teachers and students and therefore challenges the nature of the relationship. So much conversation centres on ‘effective pedagogies’ to add value and drive performance. However, this is problematic if we wish to authentically encourage students to immerse themselves in learning and lead theirs and others learning. On a micro-scale, we can often see this in our approaches to learning design. Many feel driven to construct learning around curriculum demands and prescribed indicators of performance and development that are expected. Therefore learning experiences are teacher-driven.

In pedagogical models (see below: adapted from Burns, R. (1995) – columns 1+2 and Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2000) – column 3), the motivation for learning lies more with the teacher and there is sometimes little learner-agency. Students working hard, getting on with things might appear to be deep engagement (and it may be in some instances), but it is more likely ritual or strategic compliance – it is what students are expected to do.  In addition, the teacher may not feel confident enough to invite learner-input into the design and innovate to provoke passion, interest and relevance – this could be because of time, experience or lack of support from leadership for taking risks, prototyping, breaking the mould etc.


A school and system that values, invests in and supports innovation in learning and the cornucopia of student passion, interest and talent, are in turn more likely to move into the Heutagogy realm. Here, there is significant student-agency as the emphasis is on self-determination and the ongoing development of transferable skills and capabilities for not just educational settings, but life beyond school. While some structured support will still exist from the teacher, students are invited to negotiate which resources are used, which assessable criteria are drawn up, methods of learning and destinations. They are deliberately placed in a situation which is challenging, not linear and capitalises on skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, entrepreneurship, collaboration and creativity with regularity. Learning then becomes personalised and engagement and investment in learning becomes emotional and cognitively enhancing.

To approach learning in this way (as other schools do really well – High Tech High, San Diego, Northern Beaches Christian College Sydney, Hartsholme Academy, Lincolnshire UK to name a few) takes real courage and conviction. Here, learning is ‘purposeful’ and students are absorbed and have authentic learner agency. It learning is also ‘placed’ so that it has relevance and can make a contribution to the community. Furthermore, learning is ‘pervasive’ so it is not time-limited and can extend beyond school geographically and temporally. Finally it is ‘passion-led’, and broadly appeals to young people’s interests so they see the relevance and value.

To make this work, all stakeholders need to share their values, experience and resources to shape and develop authentic engagement. Learning needs to be ‘co-created’ to ensure shared ownership and responsibility and ‘connected’ so that all those involved provide real world application and harnesses the whole community, not just teachers in design and delivery. Learning also needs to be ‘integrated’ so that it has joined up thinking and interconnectedness, and ‘personal’, because one-size fits all learning fits no one.

Leadership must encourage risk-taking by working to develop a culture of trust that is not suffocated by accountability or admonishes failure in design or outcome – rather it should value reflection, evaluation and redesign – after all that is standard assessment for learning. It must deploy resources (physical and professional) to support innovation, showcase and celebrate it and publically endorse it. Leadership must also appreciate that it may not always have the answers or wisdom – there is a community of engagement (parents, families, industries and services) on their doorstep to draw on, a digital professional learning network to contribute to and take from and manifest what it is to be a lifelong learner. School is merely a starting-block/’basecamp’ for learning; it extends far beyond the physical boundaries geographically and digitally and involves a true diversity of people, not just teachers and schools.

Enabling technologies must also be embraced. Alma Harris recently said that ‘technology is the new pedagogy’. It provides significant inroads to new platforms for collaboration (e.g. Flat Connections), sources of knowledge and data to be retrieved and applied (MOOC’s etc.). However, technology should be driven by learning, not the other way around – if it can be coupled with the relational side of education rather than substitute it, that is the holy grail. Developing and sustaining meaningful relationships with each other, teachers and other services is to be human. These are lifelong skills. Technology can provide another dimension to this and provide wonderful possibilities to learn and connect.

Engagement isn’t an option – it is an obligation. An education worth having is not about following through on fads, using buzzwords but doing nothing about them. It is not just a means to an end or a political agenda. It is about holistically unlocking the dreams and potential of every student regardless of socio-economic, geographical or ideological background. It is about cultivating the knowledge, skills, leadership and capabilities for today and tomorrow’s world. It is also about supporting teachers to become the facilitators of an enjoyable and engaging learning experience rather than just the delivery system of it.

Engagement Tree


About Jon Andrews

Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at St Paul's School, Brisbane. Passionate about engagement in learning, innovation, staff and student growth, professional learning and frontier/next practices.