Guest Post by Bryan Harris: This post was written by a friend and colleague of mine. It was originally posted on the ASCD blog. Bryan Harris is the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He's also the author of Battling Boredom, published by Eye On Education.
We know that engagement is the key to learning, but we also know that many of our students are bored with the curriculum and activities being offered in classrooms. To battle this problem, much focus and attention has been placed on getting students to be "on-task." Indeed, the link between on-task behavior and student achievement is strong. However, just as a worker at a company can be busy without being productive, a student can be on-task without actually being engaged in the learning. True, long-lasting learning comes not merely as a result of being on-task, but being deeply engaged in meaningful, relevant, and important tasks.
We see examples of on-task but disengaged behavior every day: students mindlessly copying notes from a screen, listening to a lecture but daydreaming about what to do after school, robotically completing a worksheet. Some students, particularly older ones, have become masters at what Bishop and Pflaum (2005) refer to as "pretend-attend." They've mastered the ability to look busy, focused, and on-task, but in reality they are disengaged in the actual learning.
So, how do we ramp up both on-task behavior and real, meaningful engagement for our students? Here are seven easy ways to increase the likelihood that students are both engaged and on-task:
- Teach students about the process of focus, attention, and engagement. Tell them about how the brain works and help them to recognize the characteristics of real engagement.
- When designing objectives, lessons, and activities, consider the task students are being asked to complete. Is the task, behavior, or activity one that is relevant, interactive, and meaningful, or is it primarily designed to keep kids busy and quiet?
- Ask your students about their perspectives, ideas, and experiences. What do they find engaging, real, and meaningful?
- Create authentic reasons for learning activities. Connect the objectives, activities, and tasks to those things that are interesting and related to student experiences.
- Provide choice in the way students learn information and express their knowledge.
- Incorporate positive emotions including curiosity, humor, age-appropriate controversy, and inconsequential competition. (Inconsequential competition is described by Marzano  as competition in the spirit of fun with no rewards, punishments or anything of "consequence" attached.)
- Allow for creativity and multisensory stimulation (think art, drama, role play, and movement).
Have you noticed that on-task does not always mean engaged? How do you achieve both?