Grappling with engagement

I feel squeezed – with pressure from above to engage students and resistance from below.’

Sound familiar? This quote seems to reflect the experience of many teachers as they grapple with declining rates of positive student engagement in learning. In addressing this topic, here we capture elements from the webinar ‘Reimagining student engagement’, presented by Dr Amy Berry, and highlight some references for further learning.

Word clouds with the most prominent words being Interested, Active and motivated.

Student engagement

Effort, interest, curiosity, risk-taking, persistence... Which attributes come to mind when you think about the term ‘student engagement’?

This word cloud displays the attributes and behaviours mentioned by 300+ teachers during the webinar, which explored ways of reimagining student engagement. Presenter Dr Amy Berry emphasised that while terms such as engagement and disengagement are ubiquitous in conversations about schooling, both teachers and students require strategies that support positive changes in rates of engagement. Dr Berry’s reimagined approach to student engagement has two key components:

  • facilitating language/vocabulary around the concept of engagement
  • thinking of engagement as a partnership between teachers and students.


In 2016–2017, Dr Berry decided to investigate the concept of student engagement from the perspective of the classroom teacher. In in-depth interviews with teachers, she explored their conceptions of student engagement in learning. Dr Berry was interested in their descriptions of everyday examples of student engagement as well as their descriptions of less common – but often powerful – examples of highly engaged students. Naturally, there were also many examples of students who were either actively disengaged with their learning or passively opting out. From this data, she created a continuum of engagement – and associated behaviours – that gives teachers and students concrete examples of what students might be doing within each category and how they might be interacting with their peers.

In the webinar Dr Berry unpacked each element of the continuum and explained the types of behaviours that might be observed. She expressed concern that in recent years the number of students who are passively disengaged has increased and that these students do just as poorly as those who are actively disengaged but are likely to receive less support and attention.

Continuum of engagement graphic. six differnet colour connected circles, on the left-hand side under 'disengagement' band, three circles contain the words: disrupting avoiding withdrawing. And three circles on the right-hand side under engagement band contain the words participating, investing and driving.


Dr Berry then turned to the concept of engagement as a partnership. ‘The idea of engagement often turns into “secret teacher business” … where teachers get involved in an activity of doing engagement to students or for students but not with them.’

Berry drew on the thinking of Mary Kennedy, Professor Emeritus of Education at Michigan State University, who has found that student engagement is one of five persistent and pervasive problems of practice faced by teachers. Kennedy argues that students are effectively in ‘forced captivity’, with three choices: active engagement, active resistance and passive compliance. It’s easy for students to opt for the latter, emphasises Dr Berry. ‘When we try to control students and their engagement in learning activities, we might be successful in getting some students to a level of compliance, but this is a far cry from being highly invested and motivated to learn.’

Teachers, therefore, need to work in partnership with students to leverage some of what students bring to school – their curiosity, interests and passions, their desire to connect with others. This partnership, combined with developing vocabulary around the states of engagement, will enable students to start to develop their capacity to actively engage and drive their learning.

Just as we have developed greater transparency around learning intentions and the criteria for assessment, being explicit about the ways to be positively engaged in classroom activities can make a difference. Berry argues that we need to teach students how to drive their learningShe used the metaphor of learning to drive. ‘People don’t learn to drive by us just telling them what it is and how to do it. You have to teach them how to drive and give them lots of opportunities and contexts to practise becoming a driver.’ So it is with engagement. See the webinar for some examples of the questions you could be working with to embed this process into daily learning.


One webinar participant asked what she could do tomorrow to start the process of working with her students to better understand and activate positive steps towards engagement. Dr Berry suggested that a good starting point might be to unpack the continuum of engagement with students so that they begin to learn the associated vocabulary and behaviours and how to engage with what it means for them on a personal basis.


Understanding that ways in which we as adults engage in learning is a useful process. Dr Berry’s book Reimagining student engagement offers some questions for us as teachers.

  • Have you had experiences – both as a teacher and a student – of willing compliance that might be categorised as ‘Participating’? As a learner, have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were working with someone in a way that inspired you to be highly ‘Invested’ in what you were learning or made you want to ‘Drive’ your learning even further?
  • Have you had any experiences as a teacher where you felt like you were in a collaborative partnership with students as they became highly ‘Invested’ in learning and actively engaged in ‘Driving’ their learning further?

The continuum of engagement also includes possible goals that a teacher might have for student engagement in the learning. What would your specific goals look like?

The webinar concluded with the voices of students articulating the sorts of things they would like to experience in their learning. Reflect on how you define student engagement in your classroom? What does engagement look like and how will you know if you’ve succeeded in improving it? Are these goals shared with students?


  • The webinar Reimagining student engagement provides practical strategies for teachers. Consider watching some or all of the webinar as a staff activity and talking about what you can do as a team around this topic