Molly McCloskey

Best Questions: Engaging Learning Strategies

Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.

In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..." no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.

It's been a few months since I've revisited the central questions of a whole child approach in this column, but if ever a topic begged me to pop the question (engagement pun intended), it is "engaging learning strategies." Let's ask ourselves,

  • Are our kids engaged (in their learning, school, and community)?
  • How do we know?
  • What have we done to make it so?
  • What have we taught them to keep it so?

In some ways, this particular version of the series (asking if our kids are engaged versus healthy, safe, supported, or challenged) serves as the centerpiece of a whole child approach because it is the lever that moves schools, classes, and lessons away from a culture of achievement as it is currently measured, to one of learning. Learning, after all, is the point.

Memorization does not equal learning. The binge-and-purge cycle of test prep + bubble sheets + immediately forgetting does not equal learning. And far too often, teaching does not equal learning (see the commonly heard disclaimer, "I taught it, they just didn't learn it").

Learning is active. Learning necessitates doing. Learning leads to long-term memory and application. Dare I say it, learning is fun.

For learning to occur, kids need to be fully engaged—butts off the chairs, eyes wide open, and kids talking more than the adults and saying "that was cool." The research supports this (check out the great work of Shelly Billig and others) and experience proves it over and over. Test for yourself: Think about a learning experience you've had that was particularly powerful. What made it so? How did you feel in the moment? How do you feel now when you think about it? What was your role in the experience?

When was the last time you were a part of one of those experiences in your own school? Was it a rarity or the way you do business? How many kids really get that kind of experience on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis? What could change?

Our culture relentlessly pursues achievement at the moment. What could happen if, instead, we relentlessly pursued learning?

Comments (4)


February 28, 2012

Check out Jerry Valentine’s work out of Mizzou, Instructional Practices Inventory.  It is one way to quantify student cognitive engagement, not evaluate the teacher.  The result, however, is changes in teachers alter instructional practice in order to increase cognitive engagement.

B. Decker

February 28, 2012

You nailed the problem on the head…everyone wants a quick fix and increasing engagement is not easy.
It is more complicated and challenging as kids get older. Elementary school reform and improvement shouldn’t be in the same conversation as middle/high school in all of this. Lack of motivation is really the central element not being addressed.
At the high school level, you don’t get engagement unless kids find relevance. Most of the curriculum being used is as old as the hills with almost no change decade after decade. The content and the learning have to be separated.
Kids of today do not follow blindly.
As a high school teacher I got so tired 10 years ago of trying to coerce, drap or beg kids through things like Hamlet, that I stopped one day and started asking tough questions like how will you survive the future without education. A decade later I’ve created a workbook project of self-discovery and life planning called Get totally Real!
My project takes kids to the very heart of our weak education system created by lack of acknowledgement of the changes in kids that modern life and technology have created. It guides them to the central questions of life, like purose, being a member of a society and dreams for their futures.
THERE they find momentum and begin caring about what they learn. As a system we just keep pounding content down their throats without purpose (in their eyes).
They find meaning in learning by the skills they are building that ultimately help them feed themselves and their families later.
We’ve lost sight about what education is for. Creating people who can build independent lives with varying levels of success based on effort and drive.
We have to quit waiting for magic bullets and roll up our sleeves and work WITH kids to value their minds, their knowledge and increase their desire to work to build success. My project does that but the world is so big and I am just one voice screaming out a way to change.

D. Lynch

March 1, 2012

How did we get to this fork in the road?  Why have we gotten to it?  My generation was taught to believe school was about “learning” not how to pass a test!  It’s sad to see the time, energy and not to mention “m-o-n-e-y” that is funneled into the business of assessments or a well developed series of strategies to teach test taking…not learning.  Learning is the key that unlocks minds that endorses success.  Notice I didn’t say, “achievement.”  We are all capable of success at different levels, in a multitude of areas and it is not compared to what someone else has done. Engaging our children in learning requires us to think about what we may not know as teachers as well as what we do know. This will help us to be open to the creative thinking of children and allow them to become “intellectual entrepreneurs” with the capacity to readily demonstrate knowledge.  When children are engaged in learning it is such a sweet reminder of why we chose this profession!  Thanks Molly for the “gentle reminder.”


February 7, 2014

Thanks for this sharing this wonderful learning project and educating. See more learning for kids, visit:


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