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Learning at its Best

Getting Real About Engagement (Guest Post By Adam Fletcher)

So many people are raising the flag around “engagement” now, calling for student engagement and political engagement and social engagement. They aren’t talking about marriage though, and maybe that’s what is missing in the conversation. In the heart of a marriage proposal, or engagement, a seed is planted. It’s the investment of two people into each other’s life, and when it is right, it’s a promise of commitment.

I believe that is how we should always talk about engagement, as the sustained connections a person has within or outside themselves. After more than 20 years working to promote engagement in schools, nonprofits, and throughout communities, I have come to understand that engagement is the highest order in the work of any social worker, educator, counselor, or religious teacher. It is the core stuff of living.

Wrestling through a curriculum full of standards and assessments, it can be easy for a classroom teacher to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of their job. Every school today is expected to provide a gamut of social services, health services, nutritional services, counseling services, leadership development, and physical activity to students. This is, of course, in addition to the education they provide in the classrooms, hallways, and libraries that are strategically located in schools, too.

Every human service provider in society faces similar struggles, too. Regulations, populations, commercialization, and alienation stare at everyone who serves humans in any form. Social workers, youth workers, police, doctors, politicians, desk clerks, fast food workers, case workers, mental health therapists, drug and alcohol counselors… A lot of people say their work is simply too demanding. Parents, grandparents, and neighbors often say the same, too. It seems that society is at a mutual boiling point of busyness and over-stimulation.

What gets lost in that grim analysis is the purpose of living, the experience of humanity. However, among us are many people who already know that. The Cooperative Catalyst community has many homeschoolers and unschoolers, alternative school advocates and democratic education fans. Why do we love these approaches to learning? Because students in these environments retain their humanity. Because educators in those locations stay focused on the purpose of living, which is engagement: We are alive in order to create sustained connections within and outside ourselves. The Cooperative Catalyst community loves powerful educational approaches because they help foster humanity through engagement.

Each of us can have sustained connections to art, family, nature, reading, The Universe, our hometown, or ourselves. We all can meditate, dance, dialogue, sing, drive, walk, or write in order to connect within or outside ourselves. Teachers can teach engagement, but only after they are engaged within themselves. And there is no point in trying to engage another person until you have a sustained connection within yourself, either. That “sniff test” you use to tell whether someone is telling the truth works here, too, and especially for young people: They know whether you’re actually engaged. They can smell it.

So get off the Internet, and get into yourself. As Rumi wrote, “Stop searching here and there. The jewels are inside you.”

You can find more of my writing about personal engagement, social engagement, and youth engagement at


Adam Fletcher, President and Lead Facilitator of CommonAction; founder and director of The Freechild Project. Adam is an international advocate for youth and community engagement. His career working with young people and adults as a youth worker, educator, writer, and public speaker started when he was 14 years old. Since then he has created more than 50 youth projects in the United States and Canada, including the award-winning Freechild Project, focused on re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society; and SoundOut, promoting student voice in schools. Adam has written more than 20 publications, and has worked with approximately 10,000 children, youth, and adults annually since 2001. Today, Adam lives in Olympia, Washington, with his eight year old daughter and their cat named Mailbox. Learn more about Adam at



25 thoughts on “Getting Real About Engagement (Guest Post By Adam Fletcher)

  1. Agreed and great angle! I think old school bet teachers do not see your notion of engaging… They would argue they and not the students are the only ones who are engaged or even trying to…

    Posted by Bill | January 13, 2012, 8:41 pm
    • Hey Bill, thanks for the reply!

      There have been old school teachers who got it, who get it. There was a teacher named Albert Cullum that everyone here needs to know about. That’s in addition to educators like Montessori and A.S. Neill, both of whom highly valued engagement, but from different perspectives. Even Dewey focused on engagement, despite getting sidetracked by his best intentions.

      I think it’s important that we explicitly define what we mean by engagement, and stay focused on that as a goal, rather than merely as a process.

      Posted by Adam Fletcher | January 15, 2012, 1:51 pm
  2. Hey Adam,

    This is outstanding! Thank you. I have found myself speaking about engaged learning and engaging students in their learning as a large part of my work for some time as well. If we overtly shun test scores and percentile ranks as the metric of student success, then what might we use as an alternative assessment method: what is the learners’ level of engagement? Is there care for and connection to themselves, the subject of study and the world? When we have engagement, learning is sooo much easier. An engaged learner immerses herself in the work. It is joyful and has a depth that cannot be found otherwise.

    How does a learning community (or an individual) achieve a “culture of engagement?” Perhaps this is the next question to explore. It seems to have much to do with passion and depth to me.

    The only tweak I might suggest to your piece is when you say that engagement is “the purpose of living.” I think that may not quite be right (at least for me.) Engagement is the portal, the pathway and the prerequisite to something else – that “something else” might be the real purpose, I think. The word engagement, (as the soon-to-be-married definition implies) comes from the Germanic “wadiare:” “to pledge”, or “the bonding found through making a pledge”. I believe that engaged learning, implying strong bond and connection, is akin to making a pledge to self, other and subject – a realization of deep connection. This then can allow for a shared journey. The bonding, the pledge comes first, but maybe the purpose is the ensuing journey.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 15, 2012, 10:55 am
    • Hi Paul, and thanks for the response!

      The reason why I say that engagement is the purpose of living is the very reason you suggest it is merely the means to the end: Without engagement we will never get to wherever it is each of us is seeking to go. It simply won’t happen. Where each of us is going is so completely individualized and intangible that it is nigh impossible to name that realization. Seeking to make the implausible teachable, I suggest the journey *is* the destination, and in that, engagement is the purpose.

      Posted by Adam Fletcher | January 15, 2012, 1:47 pm
      • Hi Adam,

        I am continuing to really appreciate this tack, and am now recalling bell hooks’ work on “engaged pedagogy.” Her focus in using this phrase in Teaching to Transgress, as I recall, was on the teacher’s engagement as well as the learner’s and linking engagement to her understanding of “holistic education” as well as “critical pedagogy.” She wrote: “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding that conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (hooks 1994: 15)

        I am also enjoying checking out your other on-line work. Very powerful and inspiring stuff! Engagement may indeed provide the antidote s well as the counter-narrative to apathy – far too common these days.

        So what do you think are some of the keys to creating a culture of engagement? As an educator/teacher? parent? co-learner? How do we get there? You’ve obviously thought about this a lot. Can you distill some key factors?

        We may have to continue this conversation elsewhere as well.


        Posted by holisticdancingmonkeygmonkey | January 15, 2012, 2:28 pm
        • Glad you to were able to connect via the Cooperative. You both live so close… This is a great conversation…

          Posted by dloitz | January 15, 2012, 4:02 pm
        • Yes, a conversation I would also be interesting in. Off the top of my head, one factor in creating a culture of engagement requires cultivating a sense of community. “I feel welcomed here, I contribute here, I am needed here, and I receive something valuable here.”

          Posted by Sandra | January 15, 2012, 7:37 pm
        • With direct regard for your questions…

          So what do you think are some of the keys to creating a culture of engagement?

          —> After spending a lot of time working to change macro-level systems, micro-level practice, and interpersonal attitudes and foster cultures of engagement, I have come to understand that the single most important key to creating a culture of engagement is for the person seeking that to become deeply engaged within themselves. By deeply I mean that there becomes a seamless fjord of self-responsibility that comes before all other things in this world, defined and strengthened and driven by each of us, individually. Without that fjord, all attempts to engage others within themselves or throughout the world around them are bound to fail, if not with urgent immediacy, then within a short period of a person’s lifetime.

          Far be it from me to condemn another for doing the work of their heart and insisting that they must do unto others, but too many teachers throughout too much history, ancient and recent, have taught this. In my own insistence, I worked throughout two decades in order to change others. It was only when life slowed down and my engines stopped racing that I discovered that all my attempts to engage others were irrelevant until I became engaged myself. But I’d always been engaged in my favorite topics, in things I cared about! I was still off-base. I came to understand that it’s not simply about engaging with things outside myself, but with what is inside me.

          I am teaching this now, in addition to my work through The Freechild Project, SoundOut, and CommonAction. I’ve traveled a meandering road through bounding mountains as I have come to understand things, and as you already understand, Paul, that path is determined by each of us, individually.

          Feel free to send an email- adam at commonaction dot org- it would be great to take this conversation offline if you’re interested.

          Posted by Adam Fletcher | January 16, 2012, 1:14 pm
  3. Perhaps a thread where people describe what engagement means to them, and how it is achieved in a community of learners?

    Posted by Kirsten | January 16, 2012, 8:36 am
  4. The commitment students show to work that truly engages them dwarfs that of the time they spend, even successfully, on busy work, in terms of both time-on-chosen-task and meaning to the kids.

    I’m curious about, “So get off the Internet, and get into yourself.” Without the Internet, I don’t think I would have gotten into myself as the person and educator I am today. Are there really boundaries or distinctions between online and offline spaces of engagement that make offline commitments inherently better than those online, or is it all in the eye of the beholder?

    If it’s the former, someone should let me and the blended learning community know 😉

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2012, 12:45 pm
    • Hey Chad, thanks for your note. I agree the boundaries and distinctions between our online lives and our in-person lives are forever blurred. There is infinite value in using the Internet as a tool, and I wholeheartedly believe it provides opportunities for engagement that other venues do not. Thank you for calling that out.

      I also believe that somewhere in the midst of the potential of the Internet and the reality of face-to-face interaction, something does get lost. As sentient beings, we yearn, crave and even, to some extent, require in-person interactions with others of our species. I refuse to acknowledge the value of the computer in any form to provide that same type of interaction, as I think that would be irresponsible and reckless. There are many people who believe that as a society we’re moving that direction inevitably, irregardless of my opinion. I’ll let that stand where it is.

      So, from that perspective, as frequently as is appropriate I charge the world with unplugging, particularly towards white, middle class audiences for whom technology is ubiquitous. Feed the need in a different way. And to the technocrats who think there is no other way anymore, I charge them with the task of creating real-time, in-person methodologies that cause interaction/reaction/inspiration/perspiration the way the Internet does, without the Internet. Let’s get humans moving, not machines.

      Posted by Adam Fletcher | January 16, 2012, 12:57 pm
      • Your thoughtful response has inspired a few thoughts –

        If I cede that face-to-face encounters are qualitatively and sometimes positively different than those online (they are), could we go forward together looking for the ways that technologically-mediated encounters might also be qualitatively and sometimes positively different than those face-to-face? Could we agree that showing kids the world through Skype-enabled relationships with peers in distant classrooms is something that it would be good to balance in some ratio with learning in the here part of now?

        If we found a communications technology that provided us with an experience indistinguishable from a face-to-face encounter, would it be unethical to use it?

        How does reacting against what technology – or against what a technology – does now color our expectations and use of technology in the future?

        I’d argue that humans use machines to move when provided with enough education – certainly consuming a product is different from building a computer or programming something of meaning to the programmer. I don’t know how to divorce technology from human experience as it’s part of the human experience. I think we should help kids acknowledge their relationship with technology and take ownership over its use – sometimes this means unplugging, but not always.

        What do you think about the One Laptop Per Child initiative that wants to out computing and programming in the hands of non-white, non-middle class children? Should they unplug, too? Is unplugging a luxury for those who can afford it? Does that carry with it any obligation to plug in and learn on-line with non-white, non-middle class children in virtual communities that could not be sustained another way?

        I value and appreciate your call to put human interaction before human-machine interaction. I think sometimes machines make meaningful human interaction possible; I certainly thank you for posting here – and while we could probably have a deeper conversation over a meal, I’ll take this one over nothing.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2012, 7:36 pm
  5. I have to chime in on this thread. I have really tried to remain open to emerging technologies and the transformational potentials they hold. Yet, on this one specifically, the question of engagement, I believe that there is a quality of being and relationship, and connection that is fundamentally altered when our encounter is mediated through a screen and plastic keys (even a touch screen.) The intimacy and warmth of flesh, the feel, scent and physical bonding that is possible only in a face to face encounter illustrates only part of the limitations of a tech-assisted model of engagement.

    While I have truly come to value and appreciate your perspective, Chad, I find that my heart is with Adam here. Here is what I think about in terms of engaging with a living subject: When I engage my class of 3rd-5th graders in a study of American pioneers, for example, I want to (and do) plant seeds in the carefully prepared moist earth with them, and months later harvest wheat, thresh it, grind it and cook pancakes on a campfire, with the acrid smell of smoke in our nostrils. We take long hikes and ford icy rivers barefoot and write about it in our journals. We use froes, hatchets and drawknives to fashion wooden rakes and pitchforks. We peel logs and notch them to build play-size log cabins.

    The kind of deep engagement that excites me and seems to really capture the imagination of my co-learners just can’t be simulated without the primacy of the first person encounter. We might then use the internet to do some supplemental research, but this is not what deepens the engagement to transformational levels, and in some ways this screen time is a distraction from rather than a springboard towards engagement.

    On another level, my learners and I engage with one another. Again this personal, inter-personal and intra-personal engagement I believe requires a physical presence as one key element of the encounter and the ensuing engagement. In my class we spend some time with meditation and guided visualization. Being in the presence of another and breathing deeply together stimulates the kind of engagement that I’ll never be able to get Skyping. It inspires connection caring and trust, and I don’t know how else to say it other than, it’s just different.

    I appreciate the possibilities that technology can offer but sometimes it is also an impediment. Engaged learning, I would suggest, is exponentially more likely to occur during a power outage in the dark than in a computer lab with buzzes and beeps. (stereotype, I know – just sayin.’)


    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 16, 2012, 4:09 pm
    • While my experiences with F2F living and learning don’t contradict yours, Paul, I would – without being so tongue in cheek as last time – suggest that we remain open to what learners bring us, as well well I – for example – wouldn’t feel comfortable saying I had found the extent of my students ability to “be” online, nor would I be comfortable saying that either together in person or together online we – the big we of humanity – have found all there is to find about being human and learning anywhere. I don’t think that you say these things either, but I worry about what learners think when teachers present binaries.

      I tend to think it’s all just people – technology is a bridge. Sometimes we send horrific things across the bridge. Sometimes we meet on it in community. In both cases, see American pioneers, no, online or not?

      I don’t think the pioneering work you describe is a function of being face-to-face with your students – look at how many of us never undertake that kind of work with students we see all the time (outline Chapter 1 of US History I, please). That work is a function of your relationships and community and purpose – at least it seems that way to me. Another teacher might use Skype to connect her classroom to a community where people routinely ford rivers barefoot and make their own tools today – all of it engaged, committed, human learning.

      Of course technology can be an impediment, but it can be a democratizing and humanizing thing, as well – the same way curricula and relationships can be one or the other, depending on how we use them. I’d encourage us to be skeptical of everything, including technology, to really find that sweet spot amidst all the ambiguity where it makes sense to use whatever when for what. The work you describe as part of your study of pioneers sounds like a great example of that.

      All the best,

      PS – Remind me to tell you how I met my wife sometime when we’re sharing a meal in person.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2012, 7:21 pm
  6. I will restate that my concern with the entirety of any conversation about how to engage others is that these discussions generally deflect from the point I’m trying to make: We must, must engage deeply within ourselves before even considering the need to engage others. I think that our well-meaning other-centeredness incapacitates our innate desire to do right for them by ignoring this central demand of engagement. Another way to say this may be, Do unto yourself as you would seek to do unto others.

    Cultures, computers, and dialog aside, engaging within ourselves the the foundation of engaging anyone else, ever.

    Posted by Adam Fletcher | January 17, 2012, 11:01 am


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