Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 2 – A Hierarchy of Engagement Methods

In the first part of this three-part post, I identified problems with the concept of engagement as it seems to me to be widely used in modern schooling culture. Simply put, attempts to engage often misdirect children from actual quality learning, and in the process trick teachers into thinking that they are doing a good job.

An additional idea that I am proposing is that habitual use of certain ways of gaining engagement will also condition children for their future lives, and this could be in an enabling or disabling way.

In the table that follows and the explanations below I am going to present a hierarchical taxonomy of ways of gaining children’s attention and sustained engagement. I am going to leave my explanation of Level 4 for the final part of this blog, as I want to go into some detail regarding the things which I have included in there.

Based on my proposition about how we prepare children for life, I consider the upper 2 levels to be the zones we should strive to make most use of, but I’m realistic that there are many occasions when we have no choice but to make do with the lower ones. Whilst I have placed the Level 4 band as the pinnacle, it is actually equally important that Level 3 is in place due to the nature of life, and in most cases, if you can’t get engagement with Level 2, then Level 3 won’t be possible either.

There is also, however, a fundamental assumption built into the whole structure, and that is that the role of a teacher in deciding what a child should be learning is key. Children do have natural learning impulses which we should try to harness and work with, but they lack the knowledge, maturity and wisdom to make judgements regarding what will be to their future benefit. Furthermore, formal schooling is there as a learning multiplier not simply a ‘learning enabler’, and the role of the teacher in this is key. Independence is the ultimate goal of schooling not something it needs to have reached as soon as possible. If you don’t agree with this, then you’re not going to like what I’m doing here!

Engagement Table


Level  0 – I was tempted to split this into more levels, as there are multiple steps on the road to purposeful learning, and there are situations where teachers can continue to wrestle with these issues throughout the age of compulsory schooling:  getting pupils to come to school, getting them to willingly be in lessons, getting them to be there and not disrupt the learning of others etc. This area isn’t the real focus of this blog post though.

Level 1 – I would consider this as a surrogate for purposeful learning. It is true that children could be learning all sorts of ‘soft’ skills or incidental things in such activities, but unless that is specifically what the goal is for the teacher, it is failing the children. One of my biggest current concerns about this level is my belief that children are gradually becoming desensitized to the world around them. In the attempt to compete with the digital game world that awaits many of them at home, we try harder and harder to develop strategies of ‘shock and awe’. The longer-term consequences of joining in with this are that it is likely to affect both their willingness to look at ordinary things, and also their ability to notice subtle distinctions around them.

Level 2 – At this level, pupils do engage with the learning which is intended for them, but through the use of strong, immediate extrinsic incentives. Normally it will come down to simple threats or promises from the teacher to coerce children to ‘knuckle down’ for a while. This introduces children to the world of necessity, but only at the level of training a pet. Giving children lots of choices as to what area of learning they focus on is a powerful engager, but for the vast majority of the adult workforce there really isn’t that flexibility available regarding the work they do, and so it is prioritising the world of opportunity in children over the world of necessity.

Level 3 – Here pupils are encouraged to develop a longer-term picture of the consequences of learning and applying effort in general. They begin to master the art of delaying gratification and the anticipation of problems in the future. In essence they learn to cope with the World of Necessity which is a fact of life for any adult. At this level I would also include what I have called ‘Self-Gamification’ -psychological tricks which any of us can play to turn something which is humdrum but unavoidable into something more engaging for ourselves, perhaps viewing the challenge through a different lens, or modifying it a little within permissible constraints to make it a challenge we feel inspired by. An example of this would be my own tendency on long motorway drives to try to avoid any wheels clipping the ‘cats eyes’ when overtaking!

Part 3 of this extended blog focuses exclusively on looking at Level 4 engagement and the variety of ways in which it might be activated.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 2 – A Hierarchy of Engagement Methods

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 1 – The Problem | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement | Stepping Back a Little

  3. Pingback: In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED | Stepping Back a Little

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