The Wings of Instruction:  ENGAGEMENT

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint



Part  7: The Wings of Instruction:  ENGAGEMENT

“Participation is not the same as engagement.  Don’t mistake activity with accomplishment.”


Engagement precedes everything

     Though students may be busy, occupied, and on-task, this does not mean their minds are processing for meaning or memory.  All too often the motivation is to attend sufficiently to complete an assignment, get a grade—or worse—to avoid negative consequences.  Unless participation results in “minds-on” active processing leading to meaning and memory, it’s all too commonly compliant seat time, even for so-called “bright” students.  Mistaking activity with accomplishment can be a false positive.  It bears stating once more… “Participation is not the same as engagement.”

     As relationships grow and student interests become better understood, there is cognitive science that can be employed to move learning forward in ways that cause greater memory, recall and transfer with learning targets.  Embedded in the learning sciences regarding effective pedagogy, psychology, motivation, and self-worth all weigh in.  Without active, minds-on, purposeful engagement, participation fails sustainable production.  The “Wings” of the DNA of Learning Blueprint “give flight” to four principles of engagement which are choice, personalization, relevance, and continuous feedback.  These must be interwoven within pedagogy and instruction. Best Practices” are insufficient without the four principles of engagement. “

     Relevance, choice, personalization, and continuous feedback foster generative thinking that motivates engagement.  As learners become actively engaged, the mind begins to process beyond compliant, completion-oriented attention, both mistaken certainties of implied accomplishment.  Securely in place for decades, getting through the lesson and task completion are false positives that seldom result in consolidated memory and recall. 

The four essential PRINCIPLES of engaging learners

    Engagement occurs with greater consistency when the four factors of relevance, choice, personalization, and continuous feedback are present and interwoven in learning opportunities.  These are not a checklist for inclusion in a segment of learning nor in isolation.  They are integrated in all that transpires in the journey starting from a teacher’s introduction of a big idea to a student’s demonstration of accumulated learning.

  • Relevance (“Why is this important for me?” Interests, motivation, contemporary focus)
  • Choice (How do I wish to approach & demonstrate my learning?)
  • Personalization (hooking meaning—how do I apply this to my world, and transfer the meaning to other domains)
  • Continuous Feedback (conferring, as one tool, to support a growth mindset of lifelong learning/transfer)

Engagement’s Role in DNA’s “WINGS” of Instruction



Anchor CHART:  The Psychology of Engagement that Preempts Active Processing and Motivates Learning_______________________________________________________________________


drives interest, motivation, and perseverance.  Personal meaning within context gives rise to persevere

Essential Question:  Where does student interest factor into their journey as they address the overarching learning goals/ targets of the unit?  Curriculum is not relevant because “they will need it someday” or because we believe it so.  Relevance resides within each student.

Student Choice

establishes approaches to learning outcomes and ways to demonstrate learning, so that interest & motivation are more sustainable. Choice develops student agency.

Essential Question:  Where in the unit of study does each student have input or the opportunity to choose:

·        The topic/content through which they will work on the big ideas of the unit?

·        The method/approach to investigating big ideas & concepts?

·        The method for demonstrating understandings regarding learning and essential skills


identifies and aligns individual interests, and passions that spawn curiosity, inquiry, collaboration, and empathy toward others

Essential Question:  Does the unit scaffold empowerment of learning that includes student interests/passions, and confidence to develop a deep understanding and the opportunity to learn personal strengths?  Does the learner feel connected to the content/concepts, and begins to see the relationship to the big ideas and concepts of the learning goal(s)?

Continuous Feedback

confirms that one is on the right course and why/how efforts can connect with meaning and be purposeful.  Helps teachers understand students better as well as their needs.

Essential Question:  Do the tasks contained within the upcoming instruction include frequent opportunities for the learner to engage in conversations about ways to continually improve h/her learning outcomes?  Does the feedback provide the student opportunities to reflect and critically analyze their own learning?


Engagement Template Prompts for Unit Design Development

First, identify the Big Ideas, Concepts and/or Themes that comprise the purpose for the unit:

  • Timeless: Why is this a worthy unit of study?  What about it is enduring and has life-long application for the learner?
  • What are the big ideas/concepts that this unit is about? Are they relevant for the learners?
  • What are the interdisciplinary facets of this unit—that will provide transference for understanding across domains of thinking, and interests of the students?
  • What do you need to apply this to your work/interests?
  • Is there a colleague or content specialist that might unpack depth or options within the purpose of this unit that would be helpful in your planning and guidance for learners?


Second, identify the Key Messages and Learning that make this unit important for students to learn

  • How will I articulate the purpose of this unit so that it is clear for all students?
  • Are there messages about current events, local or national issues, which would help students think more deeply about unit outcomes?
  • How will EACH student connect with the relevance of key messages?
    • Will they be able to meaningfully apply their learning to their world today?
    • Will there be clear choices that align with their interests and passions?
  • Are the key messages transferable to future learning and other areas of life?


Third, identify the Skill Competencies required that are applicable for success in this unit and beyond:

  • What skills will be needed to support growth in this unit and beyond?
  • What is in place to help students address skill development? (i.e., capacity to organize, analyze, evaluate, classify, communicate, problem solve, identify main ideas, and support details, etc.)?


Fourth, identify the Opportunities for Engagement embedded in this unit that will promote attention, processing, memory, recall, application, and transfer:

  • Can the engagement principles be clearly identified within the unit?
  • Are there options for whole-class, small group, or individuals to explore any of the neuro-moves that will enhance thinking/processing to understanding, memory and recall?


Fifth, identify Evidence Formats students may utilize to demonstrate their growth:

  • What options will students have to demonstrate their growth and understanding?
  • How might students apply their new learning across other areas of study?
  • Are there analogies to life in general that would help understanding and transfer?
  • Are the outcomes/assessment evidence of the unit clearly connected to the big ideas and key messages?
  • H4ow will I teach and model learning reflections, engaging student thinking by asking, “What is it about this work that had meaning for you?


Moving toward tomorrow:

  1. Shift your thinking and focus from coverage of content/concepts to purposeful learning that will have meaning and relevancy to student’s interests and strengths
  2. Remember, relevant ideas and learning targets that are challenging, even without all prerequisite knowledge in place, are better received and more intrinsically motivating
  3. Allow for student choice as they apply their learning in context that matters to them
  4. Have students practice collaborating with others to navigate transference in other domains
  5. Effective feedback, such as conferring with students on a regular basis supports the student to think and reflect on their own learning process. We are not comparing student to student but encouraging student agency and a continuous improvement model of assessment/feedback. We shift to addressing growth, instead of a grade or score regarding performance. Once established, critical feedback can be seen as a sign of improving, not diminished capability

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* Millen, Elaine; Greenleaf, Robert; Papanek, Doris; and Orvis, Sharyn (2010).  Engaging today’s students. Greenleaf-Papanek Publications.