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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Student Engagement: Is It Authentic or Compliant?

By Peter DeWitt — April 12, 2016 5 min read
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Sometimes a quiet class where students are listening and the teacher is doing the talking is seen as an engaged class. After all, none of the students are acting out, and they are all looking at the teacher. Many of us have been known to say, “1,2,3...eyes on me.

But...is this class authentically engaged or compliantly engaged?

Engagement is complicated because just because teachers may follow best practices that tell them to put an objective up on the wall for students to see, or run a classroom where students cannot opt out of answering a question, or even cold call or check for understanding, doesn’t mean that students are authentically engaged in learning.

They may just be compliantly engaged.

Compliant learning happens a lot in our classrooms. I recently read about SLANT, which means that students have to “Sit up, Listen, Ask & answer questions, Nod their head, and Track the speaker.” Asking and answering questions is fine, but there is a fine balance between asking for compliance and getting authentic learning.

Just because a student is sitting up and nodding their head doesn’t mean that they are truly engaged in authentic learning, which is why teaching is so hard.

As a former teacher of eleven years, there were many times that my students would answer a question as if they were asking me the answer instead of telling me what they thought the answer was. They wanted to make sure they were right, and hoped that I was happy, instead of answering as if they were passionate about the question.

I was guilty of compliant engagement as a teacher and as a student.

Understanding how to get authentic engagement means that we have to understand why it’s important in the first place. Compliant engagement is easy. We ask a question and we call on the right students to get the answer we want. When they answer the question we know that those individual students have paid attention.

When we call on students who don’t have the answer, instead of looking at our instructional practices, too often we blame the students for not paying attention. Perhaps they would pay attention and be more engaged in the learning process, if we were more engaging as teachers.

Authentic engagement means that students do more than just answer a question during a session of “sit and get.” It means that they have dialogue with us, and ask questions at the same time they’re engaging in giving us an answer. It means that students are talking as much as we are.

Starts with Relationships
This takes a pretty safe classroom climate. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has long shown through research that teacher-student relationships have a .72 effect size, which is well over the hinge point of .40 which shows a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. If we want students to authentically engage with us, then we must set up a climate where they believe that they can.

This is also where we get into issues with the growth mindset we talk about so much. Hattie’s research has shown that the growth mindset has an effect size of .19 which is much less than the hinge point. One of the reasons why the growth mindset doesn’t work in classrooms is that we treat students in fixed ways. It’s not that the growth mindset won’t work, but it often fails because of other issues going on in the classroom that prevent it from working.

Additionally, Hattie’s research found that classroom discussion (equal parts talking by students and the teacher) has an effect size of .82. Discussion is a great way to understanding whether the engagement is authentic or compliant, and it also helps the teacher focus on formative assessment so they can change their instruction to meet the needs of students.

True learning means that there are times when the teacher and students are learning at the same time. That takes authentic engagement. In a 2012 article from Faculty Focus, which you can read in it’s entirety here, has 10 great suggestions on building student engagement.


  • Enhance students’ self-belief
  • Enable students to work autonomously, enjoy learning relationships with others, and feel they are competent to achieve their own objectives
  • Recognize that teaching and teachers are central to engagement
  • Create learning that is active, collaborative, and fosters learning relationships
  • Create educational experiences for students that are challenging and enriching and that extend their academic abilities
  • Ensure that institutional cultures are welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds
  • Invest in a variety of support services
  • Adapt to changing student expectations
  • Enable students to become active citizens
  • Enable students to develop their social and cultural capital

In the End
In order to build a growth mindset in our classrooms and schools we need to find a better balance between expecting compliance and engaging in authentic engagement. We set up a dynamic to truly engage students through strategies like flipping our classrooms, metacognitive activities, using engaging short video clips, setting instructional goals with students, providing time to go through questions with a small group of peers, and providing time where students get to ask questions of us as much as we ask questions of them.

Compliance is not a bad thing. We all have times when we have to show up to meetings on time, bring the proper materials to take notes, and come back together as a group after we take time to talk through issues in small groups. However, we just have to find a better balance between expecting compliance and engaging in authentic learning. Sitting up, nodding your head, and putting your eyes on me is not enough.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter DeWitt on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Later Jay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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