How to Create Engaged Classrooms (Hint: It Doesn’t Start With Technology)


4.20.11 | Despite digital media’s potential to improve classroom instruction and learning, it’s easy to mistake new technologies as the chief inspiration and reason for engagement. It is, rather, the instrument that clinches student interest and shows how learning can be part of their digital lives.


Photo by Kim Cofino.

In the past week, I’ve come across several articles and posts calling attention to misplaced priorities—including one that dares to demand scholars take the principles of digital media and learning into traditional schools. 

In “Learning Futures: How to Engage Students,” Ewan McIntosh starts right off by noting: “These days technology is often the last thing I’d recommend schools bother with when trying to engage students. There’s plenty else we can invest time in before technology will achieve even a fraction of what it can in an engaged school. And now a set of action research reports in the UK is showing the path many schools might wish to take.”

Those reports, available at, address principles and practices to increase engagement. From the introduction to a report released in October (pdf):

Concern about the challenges of the new century has led to international calls for “21st century skills” such as collaboration, information literacy, and adaptability, that today’s young people will need in order to work and thrive as the world grows more interconnected, the environment becomes less stable, and technology continues to alter our relationship to information.

If schools are to foster such skills, they need to radically change not only what but how they teach. They can begin to achieve this by shifting the focus of engagement away from students (“how can we get them to engage with school?”) and to the school itself (“how are we engaging with parents/carers, the local community, local businesses, and other schools?”).

This short story from Medill News Service includes a good example of students engaged in and participating in learning. Erin Reilly, research director for Project New Media Literacies, recalled how students in Massachusetts reimagined “Moby Dick”:

Instead of sitting and reading, they wrote and performed a song in which the white whale represented the cocaine trade.

Reilly said being able to sample and mix content comes naturally to students, who watch and hear examples daily. The exercise showed that writers sample what they see all the time, such as Melville sampling the Bible and whaling.

“He was the ultimate re-mixer of the 19th century,” she said, and the wired-generation students were able to relate to that concept.

Remixing music, art and literature with modern-day stories comes naturally to the teens involved with YOUmedia and the Digital Youth Network. In those programs, which we frequently cover, kids work with mentors and librarians to realize their ideas.

But what about kids who don’t have in-school or after-school engagement opportunties, or who are so accustomed to being bored and disengaged that they don’t both to attend? Those are the kids Antero Garcia is most concerned about.

Garcia, an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles and an adviser on national education policy initiatives, has written a post at DMLcentral on getting serious about reimagining learning in a digital age—and engaging all kids:

From the “trenches” of public K12 education, this is what things generally look like: there are some really cool things happening in colleges, and there are some really cool things happening for kids after school.

The thing is, not all kids are engaging in after-school activities. Even more significantly, the vast majority of my students aren’t going to college. The dropout rate at my school is over 60 percent; of the students who do graduate, most do not meet the minimum requirements to be eligible to apply to four year universities.

At this point, we have a generally clear understanding that kids are immersed in learning spaces while they’re out of school and hanging out (or messing around or geeking out). It’s also fairly reasonable to assume that the same kinds of behaviors students have in terms of learning outside of school are happening–perhaps somewhat tempered–inside of schools as well.

Which begs the question: why aren’t we spending more time—and thus working with more kids—by intervening within schools? Quest To Learn in New York City is a timely example. But, we also need programs and innovators to begin working within the sometimes uncomfortable confines of traditional school structures—if we expect them to change.

Garcia, who also blogs at The American Crawl, makes the case that digital media and learning needs to take place in crowded classrooms and in messy realities. There will be willing kids and willing teachers, but it will take some time to create change on the scale that is promoted earnestly in speeches and national educational goals:

There aren’t a whole lot of large-scale programs I can point to that are working within schools. There are, however, lots of amazingly innovative educators who are sharing their ideas online. Teachers want to work with innovators and I’m encouraging you to strike up a conversation with a teacher at a nearby school.

And, here’s the thing about working with kids in schools: not all of them are going to be that excited about new approaches to learning. Even if they are excited about what you are trying to do in their classes, a bunch of kids are going to still tell you that what you are doing is “boring” and generally go out of their way to signal that they aren’t interested. Why will they do this? Because they are kids.

As someone who regularly works with kids outside of schools in after-school and summer programs as well as spending the majority of my days waking up early and scrawling on a whiteboard, there is a significant mode of participation to which young people have become unnecessarily acculturated. With literally tens of thousands of hours spent being conditioned to facing forward and remaining in seats, we have created factory-minded young people who need to be gently provoked. This work takes time and trust; once those two things are present, a classroom of enthused minds is limited only by imagination.

A question for educators: How do you see change happening at your school? What steps—small or big—have been considered a “success”?

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