Engage Students Not Contain Students | The Highly Effective Teacher Engage Students Not Contain Students | The Highly Effective Teacher

How To Engage Students Not Contain Students

Marie Amaro

Engage Students Not Contain Students

How Do You Engage Students?

Are your students paying attention in class? Are they talking too much? Are they focussed? Is it hard to get them to listen?

What does true student engagement look like?

According to Fredericks (2014), engagement is characterised by appropriate behaviour (behavioural engagement), positive feelings (emotional engagement), and, above all, student thinking (cognitive engagement).

This indicates that behaviour, emotion and cognition all need to be present for true student engagement.  

Sometimes schools only consider the behavioural aspect of this equation.

The Grattan Institute Report released in February 2017 provides some interesting figures about student engagement. According to their research, 40% of students are disengaged, and approximately half of that figure would go unnoticed because they are not behaviour issues.

This is disturbing for many reasons. One because most teachers would dispute the figure despite the research, secondly because the figure is way higher than most schools would have imagined and thirdly because engagement of students is one of the top issues for teachers who are continually trying new ways to motivate, inspire and involve students.

At most of my workshops, teachers discuss how to increase student participation in learning, especially for the students who refuse to engage or for whom nothing seems to work.

I believe that the education system, schools and teachers are looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. We are trying to engage students in content that doesn’t interest them, using methods that don’t appeal to them and for reasons that are meaningless to them.  

Teach Students Not Content

I liken this approach to the following scenario.

Teachers sign up to one of my behaviour management workshops. When they arrive, I hand them a medical textbook, tell them they have to learn the content and I will test them at the end of the day. If they don’t do very well I will call their Principal to discuss what to do about their lack of motivation and poor performance.

I would envisage that there would be a range of responses from the participants. Some of the teachers would be ok with the medical component because they may have a previous background in nursing or medicine. Some of them would be excited by the prospect of learning something completely different, and some would be decidedly anxious and wish that they had never come along. More than a few would be asking what this had to do with teaching and how it was relevant to their teaching practice.

There are many ways that I could alleviate their anxiety.  I could explain why I had decided to teach using a medical textbook at a teacher workshop and address their concerns about what they will need to know. I could give them the explicit criteria for the expected knowledge and understandings and I could draw links between teaching and medicine.

So many times, schools promote the attitude that students are at school to learn and that they must learn what we teach. If we are going to tap into their natural curiosity and desire to learn, then we need to look at what we offer and the way we offer it.  

Real engagement is only possible when students have a ‘why’ attached to the learning.

As Simon Sinek says, “Start with why”.

Help to Motivate Your Students By Showing Them The ‘Why’

1. Relationships

Students will do more and learn more for teachers they feel care about them. Because learning occurs in social situation a positive student-teacher relationship contributes to improved learning and engagement.

2. Relevance

Children and particularly adolescents need to see the relevance of the learning to their lives as this is not always apparent. It is also important for students to see that there is meaning and purpose in learning for learning’s sake. Sometimes what we are learning is how to learn; it’s about the process rather than the product.

3. Competence

When students feel that they have a high degree of possibility for success they are more likely to engage with a task. This does not mean the task should be easy, but that it has the right amount of challenge inbuilt so that there is also; a sense of achievement. Students need to have experienced success in order to feel that they can do so again. This can be of particular issue with students who have a long history of school failure.

4. Collaboration

Using cooperative learning tools can amplify student engagement due to an increased sense of connection with others (Deci & Ryan,2000). The social nature of schooling indicates that students learn better and are more engaged when they work with others, learn from and teach peers and are given opportunities to increase social skills.

When we accept that schools have the responsibility for student engagement and we tap into what is meaningful for students we will have more success in motivating and inspiring young people.

Other Relevant Resources

Developing A Consistent Approach

How To Keep Your Students Engaged In Class


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.

Fredricks, J. A. (2014). Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning. Los Angeles: Corwin.

Marie Amaro

Marie is the author of Habits of Highly Effective Teachers and is a passionate educator, with over 30 years experience working in education. Marie is a speaker, presenter and specialises in positive behaviour management, teacher wellbeing, restorative practices and school culture.