Engagement: I Do Not Think It Memes What You Think It Memes

INIGOI don't think

When I search Google for “engagement WKU” or “student engagement”  I get a hot mess of stuff.  In fact it clarifies for me how the word has lapsed into confusion (at least for me).  The Google nGram chart below for “student engagement” indicates that before 1962 there is no record of  the use of the phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary connects engagement to mortgage in a feudal bow toward reciprocal duty.  The modern usage  has abandoned this idea of shared duty for the behaviorist schema that engagement is something we do in order to elicit the response we seek.  In other words where engagement had once been a two way street, it  has now been reduced to a “treatment”.  I get attention by doing something to get it.


I am trying to figure out what this word means in the classroom.  With the aid of two blog posts, one by Steve Greenlaw which led me to another  by  Gardner Campell nearly ten years ago, I have begun to  sample what engagement might mean.

Here is the idea that Gardner Campbell suggests:  treat engagement like an Apgar Test.  Interestingly, out of my 60 university students only four of them admitted to having heard of the idea and only one nursing major and one elementary ed major could speak specifically to what it meant.   As a husband whose wife birthed all of our babies at home (she is my hero), I helped administer the Apgar Test to all three of my newborn squids.  My favorite observation from the midwife of my first born was “pink to the fingertips”, an observation that meant a lot considering my son had the umbilical wrapped around his neck.

The idea here is to use this tool as a simple screening device to get an even simpler take on whether or not your learners are either finding themselves engaged or are actively engaged.  Below is the HaikuDeck I used in class to administer the Gardner’s Apgar. If you click here you can also see my slide notes.

Gardner’s Apgar – Click here to see slide notes and observations.

I have prepared a Google Form for use in future classes:

One of the reasons for doing this work is to push back on the behaviorist notion that engagement is an experimental stimulus to be applied to learners in order to get more of it. Engagement is indeed what the teacher does, but it is even more what the learner does and even more than that it is about how everyone in the community connects. It is what the learner brings to the task at the hand, what she brings to the community of learners, and what we all share as our “ante into the game”. And the game is no fun unless you have skin in it.

4 thoughts on “Engagement: I Do Not Think It Memes What You Think It Memes

  1. Terry yes. We are engaged with somebody not in something.

    There is mutual trust, a mutual agreement, a contract. If we think in terms of military contracts there would be press-ganging, conscription, recruitment, engagement…it is the least one sided relationship.

    It seems to me that there is a lot of snake-oil selling going on in education.

    Buy this it will fix all your ailments.

    Manipulation (objectifying) rather than education (subjectification).

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—b.

  2. Thanks for this post Terry. Gardner’s Apgar establishes engagement as a two way proposition, which is essential if we want students to develop agency. The thing that strikes me about this test is that every question asks what the students have done out of class. Is that where we want all of the focus? I can imagine questions that get at the in class actions of learners, like asking probing questions, providing feedback to peers, or designing something with a peer. I’m interested in your thoughts.

    Also, Gardner’s Apgar reminds me of Reich’s Law of Doing Stuff, which I found in an old tweet-
    (I just love digging through boxes in my basement for old tweets.)
    Is it helpful to make students aware of Reich’s Law of Doing Stuff? If, as a student, I’m focused on doing stuff and creating connections, am I engineering my own engagement?

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