Engagement, Opinion

So What Do We Really Mean by Engagement?

Would you rather be the chicken or the pig?

I’m hoping that my blogging colleague Bruce Beairsto doesn’t mind me walking alongside him as he teases out questions of motivation and engagement. As it turns out, both of these areas of reflection are pretty constant companions for me these days and hooking up with a traveling partner that actually talks back may be helpful.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the question of engagement and what I really mean when I use the term. Most often, I have used engagement as a substitute for involvement. Other times, I’ve used it to refer to my participation in a more intense conversation or a debate. In other instances, it has signalled the existence of a strong commitment to someone or something.

Engagement. It’s a complex word, and when we use it in the context of a complex system like school, then that complexity multiplies!

But I would like to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between involvement and engagement and it’s precisely that difference that has occupied some of my thinking lately. Simply looking at the roots of both words might give us a clue as to the difference.

Involve is rooted in the Latin verb meaning “to roll“. To involve is, quite literally, to get “rolled up” in something. Engagement, on the other hand, has the French verb “gage” as its root, which refers to a pledge or a commitment. Hmm…

I’m thinking that the difference is significant when we’re talking about the approach to school that we want to foster in both students and teachers. I’m also thinking that the terms involvement and engagement aren’t opposites, but two points on a continuum of participation.

It’s easier to get people involved in something; its more difficult to move to the level of engagement where folks are actually committed to the idea and the action required to move forward. Plenty of examples come to mind. I’m getting my son involved in minor league baseball, but I’m reluctant to commit to coaching a team. I’m involved as a substitute musician at a couple of local churches, but I’ve turned down an offer to be engaged as full time music director.  I was involved  with the fun fair at my son’s school, but I don’t have time to be engaged in the planning or leadership of next year’s event. You likely have quite a few personal examples of your own.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes and asking the “so what” question, but I’ll throw out a few questions of my own that will force me to follow up on this thinking over the next few weeks.

When we talk about student, teacher and parent engagement, are we using involvement and engagement synonomously? In other words, do you see an important difference between the two ideas?

If there is a distinction to be made between involvement and engagement what is that we are really seeking in the relationships that we develop within our schools? 

Is there something qualitatively different about a student that is involved in her school, as opposed to one that is engaged?

Is it possible for a parent to be actively involved in the life of the school, but not really engaged in their child’s education?

Is engagement an indicator of teacher quality or will involvement serve just as well?

I have some ideas percolating around the movement from involvement to engagement. While I’m certainly not the first to be thinking about this, this is the first time that I’ve considered it myself. Teacher and writer Larry Ferlazzo has done some lively thinking about this and I smile everytime I think about the fable that he references in an introduction to one of his related blog entries. It goes like this.

A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the street. The Chicken suggests, “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”. The Pig replies, “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”. The Chicken responds, “How about ‘Ham-n-Eggs’?”.

The Pig thinks for a moment and says, “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved!” (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chicken_and_the_Pig)


Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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