Often, those writing about engagement describe the feelings and sensations associated with engagement as happening while the learner is immersed in the cognitive or behavioral activity. Internal motivation may lead us to take some action; for many, engagement refers to what we experience during the activity. That may be true, but business consultant Jeffrey Tobin (2016) describes the distinction between intrinsic motivation and engagement this way: "Motivation: What's in it for me? Engagement: What's in it for us?" I found this simple distinction very provocative and helpful.
Consider your priorities related to student work. We (rightfully) rejoice when students find an author they love, undertake research to explore a question of interest, or write a compelling opinion piece. We often work diligently just to get students to that point, and well we should—intrinsic motivation is critically important to all of us! In the spirit of deepening students' understanding and the urge to learn, however, I suggest engagement is by far the more powerful and lasting driver. Intrinsic motivation can be a path to or may coexist with engagement. I won't go so far as to say that intrinsic motivation must come before engagement—we may not need motivation to be engaged—but if we bifurcate the two ideas as Tobin does, engagement takes on important additional dimensions that go beyond any kind of motivation. Engagement, like intrinsic motivation, is internally driven, but our experience of engagement goes beyond motivation. The engaged learner isn't only interested in herself; she ponders how a topic or issue impacts others, and she considers how her thinking, emotions, beliefs, and/or actions might affect those around her. An engaged learner has a strong sense of purpose. There is something to be learned that reaches far beyond the words on the page or the immediate experience.
Here's another way to look at the contrast between intrinsic motivation and engagement. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) argues that engagement refers to a state of being, a sensation that he calls flow; it's a feeling that is all too rare in children's learning lives and, I believe, need not be. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow in this way: "There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake" (249). You feel part of something larger—that's the distinction between internal motivation and engagement. Right there.
I want to be clear—no one can (or would want to) spend all their time deeply engaged as described above or as I will define it. There is a need for compliance, participation (particularly when it has more to do with collaboration), and internal motivation. We need children to comply with our admonitions to look both ways before they cross the street and to refrain from striking another child when they become angry. We want children to be helpful participants in a classroom community, and internal motivation is often the launching pad for engagement.
Most teachers agree, however, that we want the proportion of children's time to tilt toward intrinsic motivation and engagement. If we take the long view—what we want children to be able to think, feel, believe, and act upon, not just twenty days or weeks, but in twenty years, and not only for themselves, but on behalf of others—it will become clear that engagement is one of the most crucial learning tools we can help children develop. More important, however, engagement is a significant part of what makes us feel truly alive.
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To learn more about Engaging Children and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning. She serves as senior advisor at Heinemann, overseeing the Heinemann Fellows initiative and is the editor of the Heinemann Professional Development Catalog-Journal.