The Nature of Student Engagement

Schlechty & Engagement copy

From Phillip Schlechty’s Working on the Work

According to Schlechty, students who are engaged learn at high levels, retain what they learn, and can transfer what they learn to new contexts. Like Charlotte Danielson, Schlechty states that a fully engaged student sees the activity as personally meaningful and worthwhile, and persists in the face of difficulty. They move beyond simple “task completion” and self-monitor to ensure high quality work is completed. In the weeks to come we will be looking at specific activities/routines that promote engagement, and will examine behaviors that often pass as engagement (strategic & ritual compliance, retreatism & rebellion).   In other words, we will be focusing on the heart of the FFT – 3c: Engaging Students in Learning!

Rebellion & Retreatism: A staple of the engaged student is the ability to persist in the face of rigorous instructional tasks. They maintain high personal standards beyond simple task completion or extrinsic rewards/consequences. Students who retreat and/or rebel will not display persistence, simply because the assigned tasks are not being completed. The difference between retreatism and rebellion is that a student, who retreats, does not engage in activities that distract others, while a student who rebels will openly substitute the assigned task with a personal goal/activity. Some of our ELL students may sit passively during shared reading, for example, and may seem engaged despite language barriers that prevent understanding, while a student who is rebelling may actively trace the shapes on the carpet rather than engage in the shared reading experience.

Compliance: Schlechty divides compliance into two categories: ritual compliance & strategic compliance. A student who is ritually compliant pays minimal attention and is easily discouraged. They do the bare minimum and only when being directly supervised. For the strategically compliant student, effort is directly related to some type of reward (grades, tickets, etc.). Once the reward is received they will abandon the task even if it is not up to their standards. For compliant students, the ability to retain and transfer information is low and you will still see a lack of persistence (just as with rebellion and retreatism). One of the biggest pitfalls that all educators must avoid is mistaking compliance for engagement. For example, imagine a classroom where all students are sitting quietly at centers. At a first glance this might look fantastic, but at a closer look you notice that a student in the book nook is not reading at all. She is just sitting quietly holding the book. Once you approach the student, she quickly begins reading in the hopes that she will receive a reward (i.e. a ticket from the schoolwide token economy).

The Engaged Student: As educators, our goal is for all students to maintain a high degree of engagement throughout the day. However, is it reasonable for us to expect that all students are engaged all day? Schlechty would say no! Even our best students will have moments where they are merely compliant or even times when they retreat. Reflect on the times you have attended workshops…the same holds true for us as adults! Our true goal must be to design instruction that allows us to maximize the time students are fully engaged, and to monitor what is being produced during those times. The first step is to develop learning tasks that are personally meaningful to our students. This will result in an environment where students invest time, effort and attention, and where students maintain high personal standards (persisting when the work becomes challenging). Writer’s Workshop is a fantastic example of this, as students are given the opportunity to select the topics they explore.

The Classroom Environment: In addition to developing the taxonomy of student engagement, Schlechty has also developed classroom profiles. His goal is not to rate the teacher, but to observe patterns of student behavior and how they are related to specific learning tasks throughout the day. Based on the level of student engagement observed, classrooms are divided into three categories: The Pathological Classroom, The Well-Managed Classroom & The Highly Engaged Classroom. In the upcoming weeks we will look closely at each of the three classroom profiles; however, there are basic assumptions that hold true in all three environments:

  • Students will respond differently to assigned tasks – their level of engagement is fluid.
  • Because engagement is fluid, retreatism & compliance are not signs of a pathological classroom.
  • As the level of student responses moves down the engagement taxonomy (i.e. from compliance to rebellion), their willingness to respond, ability to transfer information, and compliance with classroom expectations become more fragile and contingent upon rewards/consequences.
  • Low-level/recitation questioning strategies promote compliance (as we know this will impact student abilities to transfer and synthesize information) and discourage retreatism and rebellion. While this may look good on the surface, this practice also discourages true engagement.



The Highly Engaged Classroom: In the highly engaged classroom, most students are engaged most of the time. As we learned last week, engagement (for any age group) is fluid. Therefore, you will also see a degree of compliance and even some bouts of retreatism; however, little/no rebellion is observed in this classroom environment.



The Well Managed Classroom: In the well-managed classroom, compliance is King! At any point throughout the day, you will see a classroom that is orderly, where most students are working (some with enthusiasm), and there is little/no rebellion. However, the classroom appears well managed because most students are willing to be compliant, not because they are engaged. The well-managed classroom is the most common of the classroom profiles, and is often mistaken for the highly engaged classroom by outside observers. Therefore it is essential that we ask specific questions to ensure that the absence of engagement does not go unnoticed. This can include questions such as: are learning tasks open-ended, do they provide opportunities for extension, OR do all students have the opportunity to demonstrate understanding through multiple means of representation?



The Pathological Classroom: At a first glance, the pathological classroom will look similar to the well-managed classroom; however, the pathological classroom will experience significant patterns of rebellion. Although, small amounts of engagement will be present (specifically when activities of high interest are presented), many students will reject learning tasks all together and freely substitute alternate activities. In this environment, the teacher sacrifices his/her personal standards, settling for considerable amounts of retreatism and ritual compliance. They will also lower their expectations for performance, and grant rewards to promote compliance, rather than rewarding true engagement.


Filed under Student Engagement

7 responses to “The Nature of Student Engagement

  1. Jeff

    This was a great read. I believe most teachers strive to engage their students. I wonder what strategies could be given to address the various classrooms that are presented in this article. For example, using puppets or dressing up as a character to tell a story.

    • Rich Taibi

      Providing tools to help a text come alive is a fantastic way to engage students! The two areas where student tend to fall through the cracks are during whole group instruction and at centers – in other words, this is where “compliance” can take over like an unstoppable rebel force! Literacy Work Stations (by Debbie Diller) and Total Participation Techniques (by William Himmele) are two FANTASTIC texts that give us tools address this!

  2. Pingback: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching: The 4 Domains | The Curriculum Corner

  3. Thomas Bishop

    Excellent coverage of the topic. I am an apprentice machine shop teacher. I’ve taught adult ed for years and then took a job teaching high school. The first few years were rough, but this year I experienced both the Pathological Classroom right up through the Well Managed Classroom and approaching the Highly Engaged Classroom. All in the same class!! I had one student who actively rebelled and worked to undermine the entire classroom for my entire first semester. I was at a loss. Finally, he proved too hazardous in a shop environment and had to be removed. Since then, my class has resembled the Well Managed Classroom and as time went by, started to become more engaged. At first, I felt that I could have somehow done more for the rebel, but have since found out that he is like this in ALL of his classes. Even with experienced teachers. What do you do with a student like that?

    • Rich Taibi

      Hi Thomas! Thank you for sharing your story! Based on what you’re saying you handled the situation effectively. When dealing with behaviors, I always encourage educators to think in layers (or tiers, to utilize RTI language). Tier 1/Universal behavioral supports will work for the 80%, Tier 2 for about the next 15% of kids and then there’s Tier 3 (which this student seems to be). That’s where you definitely want to tap into extra supports. That said, if Tier 1 isn’t inlace then you will have a challenging time with all the students. One successful piece we have implemented (albeit with elementary kids) is to provide opportunities for students to “hang” with teachers outside the instructional setting (during an open period, duty, etc.). This has definitely helped solidify relationships between our special area teachers and our Tier 3 students. Let me know your thoughts…what would something like that look like with HS kids?

  4. christopher nong

    Excellent piece of work done
    Thank you

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