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Learning at its Best

Engaged Pedagogy

There’s one heck of a problem in American education today.  There seems to be absolute consensus on this point.  After all, student test scores are woeful in comparison to those of other industrialized nations.  And the test scores of students of color reveal a gap that exposes a culture of privileging the already privileged, that shows little sign of change.  Hands are wringing and policy makers and administrators scramble to increase standards and heighten the stakes of measurable achievement.  We must close failing schools, rest control away from lackadaisical districts and place it firmly into the hands of the DOE.  We must weed out underperforming teachers and cajole, threaten and reward students into “success.”

The problem as I see it, however, is not low test scores.  Rather low test scores are a symptom or maybe even in some indirect ways a cause of the problem.  The problem is lack of engagement.  The problem is disconnection, isolation, fragmentation, and a total absence of any sense of meaning, purpose, or relevance for learners and teachers alike.  Students feel, (rightly) that their school work is entirely separate from their real lives and has little or no intrinsic value.  Classes are “boring.”  Homework is “annoying” and burdensome.  Continual assessments are stressful.  Meanwhile teachers are exasperated from the increasing pressure from above and the simultaneous expressions of indifference and disrespect from their charges.

When we engage…

Over the past twelve years, having previously left such a pedagogical culture of fragmentation and fear, I have enjoyed the incredible privilege to work in, and immerse my pedagogy in a place of engagement and engaged learning.  Salmonberry School, where I have dedicated myself and my teaching practice has a by-line in its promotional material, “when a child loves school amazing things are possible.” What we’re really talking about in reference to “love” here is engagement. Not “love,” like “oh, I love chocolate,” but love as in commitment, understanding, care, trust.  It is this goal of engagement or “love,” if you will, that is the driving force behind all of our pedagogical, curricular and structural decisions at Salmonberry.

We are looking to nurture children’s natural and intrinsic capacity for deep connection and engagement with the world around them.  The three-year-olds who enroll at the school exude this natural sense of engaged learning.  Everything they encounter is embraced fully with all senses and seems to fill them up.  Unfortunately, far too often the school system, in an effort to frenetically impart “core” knowledge and skills to each learner, inadvertently yet systematically disengages children from the world around them and from their own learning.  The driving force in our school is to hang on to that level of full engagement and build a culture where this kind of committment is the expectation and foundation for everything.  For when learners are fully engaged, it is as if all processes become smoother, easier, and somehow better lubricated.


An engaged student sees meaning and purpose in their education.  They see education as life-long and all-the-time.  A disengaged learner views education as an alien-imposed obstacle course to survive with minimal contact, while avoiding any authenticity and mitigating vulnerability.  Learning is something that is limited to the four walls of the classroom the hours of 9-3, and increasingly the contents of the Common Core Standards.  An engaged student, by contrast, absorbs new material like a sponge, and then acts on it to make it truly their own.  They swim in a sea of creativity, insight and imagination and exude a sense of passion and purpose.  They are willing to take risks without fear, exposing themselves and implicitly trusting the support they will receive from others.  They have internal motivation and do not need test scores, percentile ranks, letter grades or fear of punishment or humiliation to coerce their learning.  An engaged learner is a joy to work with.  Learning comes easily and naturally.

But the holy grail, in my pedagogical vision is not an engaged individual learner but an engaged learning community.  When a community of learners, teachers and supporters (parents) come together with an expectation of engagement, that is when we witness true magic, transformation, and unlimited growth and self-actualization for all community members.  In these communities of care (Noddings) or Communities of Truth (Palmer) the engagement is ubiquitous and omnipresent.

bell hooks has written a good deal about what she termed “engaged pedagogy.”  Her conception, growing out of a blending of the holistic Buddhist tradition as articulated by Thich Nhat Hanh and the action-plus-reflection-based critical pedagogy of Paolo Freire, informs my own understanding. I encourage readers to check out some of her work.  Here is one place to start.  She goes so far as to bestow a moniker on the realization of a community of engaged pedagogy.  The term she uses, quite simply, is “ecstasy.”

Have you ever glimpsed what you would call “engaged pedagogy?”  What did it look like? Feel like?  What are its critical attributes? And how do we get there?  If engagement, rather than achievement, is the goal, then what practices must we radically re-think?  I hope to give many more specific examples and more fully describe my own conception of engaged pedagogy in future posts here.

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


17 thoughts on “Engaged Pedagogy

  1. Through support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Is project, members of the National Writing Project have been working for three years on developing curriculum and replicable project work in collaboration with Make Magazine and the Maker Faire, initially focusing on technical writing based on how-to’s drawn from students’ creations. This work has now evolved into an initiative to work in a Third Space, where schools can overlap with community organizations like museums and art galleries to create authentic, real-world art and service projects that are inherently engaging, since they emerge directly from collaborative design processes premised on an egalitarian, failure-embracing ethos. My local NWP chapter, the Central California Writing Project, based at UCSC in Santa Cruz, has one such project underway in collaboration with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History: Forage III, in which students in after school series of five workshops are building and blogging about a mobile sculpture under the mentorship of Ed Martinez, metal sculptor and visionary artist. We’re beginning to document the project at

    One key point that’s emerging for me through this work is the over-emphasis in terms of teacher praxis on pedagogy — we need much more attention to mathetics, the study of learning rather than teaching. While many conscientious educators certainly ponder and try to address student needs in individual cases, and embrace or at least pay lip service to variations in “learning style,” I’m talking about a much deeper look into and analysis of the process of learning. How can we structure environments for learning that have the vigor and flexibility to engage every learner wherever they are at, and help them discover what they need for any situation?

    Thank you for raising this important question.

    Posted by Fred Mindlin (@fmindlin) | September 29, 2012, 3:30 pm
    • Thanks for the comment, Fred. The Forage III project looks amazing. I’ll be excited to follow along and see how things unfold for you.

      I totally agree that there is a large swath of conservative educators, as well as progressive reformers and even critical pedagogues who focus an awful lot of attention on teaching methods and measurable outcomes, with insufficient appreciation expressed for the learners’ processes and in particular their interiority.

      On the other hand, holistic educators, (J Miler, R Miller et al), and humanistic educators (Rogers, Maslow e.g.) often have been criticized for over-emphasizing personal growth, transformation and self-actualization while neglecting the external context and issues of race, class, privilege and the need for action.

      I think that bell hooks admirably tries to find a balance and advocate for a kind of “soulful praxis” that takes much greater account of the inner world of both teacher and learner and emphasizes the relationship between the two. In her book, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, hooks reveals her deep commitment to recognizing the critical role of the wholeness of the learner, by often referencing holistic thinker and educator, Parker Palmer, including the following quote from Palmer – one of my all time favorites, “…education at its best-this profound human transaction called teaching and learning- is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.”

      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 29, 2012, 5:13 pm
  2. Engaged pedagogy? I see it at math circles. People come voluntarily. The leaders throw out interesting problems, and the students go at it.

    Posted by suevanhattum | September 29, 2012, 7:00 pm
    • Thanks so much for this contribution, Sue.

      Voluntary attendance! What a simple modification but what a critical and symbolic gesture towards recognizing learners’ autonomy and authority, and such an expression of trust. Seems like a move that could have huge implications for engaging learners.

      My next thought is, what if the leaders encourage the participants to bring their own “interesting problems” to “throw out?”

      And what if the problems that were selected were ones that the participants might, or even were expected to then act upon? Zoe W. has talked about this in one of her TED talks. Do you know the site, Radical Math? – a nice source for open-ended math problems that stimulate critical thinking as well as possibilities for action.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 29, 2012, 7:33 pm
  3. I feel that too often the school teaches children to compete with each other. Winners, best grade students, are taught into a separation paradigm that leads us all to thinking other people’s problems are not ours when we grow up. Love as egagement, trust and respect is definately an orientation that I am looking for in my pedagogical aspirations ( You can check my post on that . Thank you for sharing this!

    Posted by Janaina | September 30, 2012, 5:57 am
    • Thanks for the link and the comment, Janaina. I agree that competition, which is everywhere implied in mainstream education today, is a significant impediment to engagement, particularly for those who aren’t winning the “race to the top.” But even for those who enjoy greater success, as Alfie Kohn often points out, the mere fact of the competition and the rewards and threats associated with the outcome distances the learner from the subject and leads him/her to view the work as an object to act upon, rather than a living subject with which to deeply engage.
      I love your idea in your post of moving from an information/knowledge society to a “wisdom” society.” The missing element in a tech-focused information society, of course, is any notion of heart, soul, spirit, care, mutuality, etc. Have you read any “spiral dynamics theory?” Beck and Cowan’s notion of evolving consciousness? Sounds like something that might interest you. (BTW – interesting that you and I both chose interlocking gears as images. I must say, I had mixed feelings about this, as I didn’t want to reinforce the mechanistic conception of learning, though it is a familiar metaphor for engagement.)

      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 30, 2012, 10:33 am
      • I had not heard of them, Paul, thank you, I will check that. I have just heard about Bell Hooks, who is talking about engaged pedagogy as a way to bring love (not like I love chocallate). Love as respect, solidarity and trust. This is definatly a direccion I would like to persue. And you are right, interlocking gears is not what I deaply mean… should work on that =)

        Posted by Janaina | October 1, 2012, 10:16 am
  4. Paul, as always, love this post. At one point I did a whole writing/research project on hooks’ ideas of engaged pedagogy. What are the indicators you would use personally, if you were visiting an educational center or school, of deep and profound engagement? One of the common issues transformative educators confront is the lack of measures or indicators of what they’d like to see. We may not want to have to create them, but they are nonetheless useful. What would yours look like?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 30, 2012, 7:34 am
    • Kirsten, so glad that you’re still here participating in these dialogues! I’ve been missing connecting with you. I am imagining spending a whole day walking among some tall trees talking with you about bell hooks and solving the world’s problems. Have you ever met her? Heard she was teaching at Berrea, KY a few years ago. Still? Your question, as usual, requires that I write a dissertation to answer it well. So here is my very cursory list of things I’s want to see if a school is seriously striving for an engaged learning community:

      -small, intimate classes or clusters
      -students working on independent projects inside and outside school and school hours
      -students and teachers working with community members on real issues
      -arts of many kinds, with bodies in motion and hands at work
      -time and space provided for reflection
      -parents being present and active
      -curriculum growing from students’ interests and teachers’ creativity
      -collaboration and dialogue everywhere
      -a connection to place, i.e. work “in the field.”
      -smiles and laughter… lots. (maybe even hugs! And sometimes tears…”let’s just change this to authentic emotional expressions” but with lots of smiles and laughter!!)
      -excellent attendance, with kids and teachers arriving on time and staying late (assuming this is a school setting with arrival and dismissal times, though I can imagine many other settings where engaged learning can occur.)

      I’d love to invite others to comment and add to this list. What does engaged pedagogy look like?

      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 30, 2012, 10:52 am
    • Paul, you have a beautiful way with words!
      About indicators – that’s a tough one! One indicator that I have observed of engaged pedagogy is HAPPINESS. I don’t mean just on the surface happy, I mean a true sense of self and that vibrant force that gets released when we are in a true learning process… its quite powerful and invigorating!
      Could we create a “happy-o-meter” to measure learning success?

      Posted by Donna Mikkelsen | September 30, 2012, 10:55 am
      • Thanks, Donna. What’re you up to, my friend? We should catch up… soon.

        Absolutely! Happy kids are sooo teachable, and well-taught kids, those who are held with real respect and care tend to be happy. Happy teachers teach well, and cared-for and respected teachers are usually pretty happy. Wonder how the teachers are assessed in Bhutan, eh?

        My only fear in invoking the “happiness quotient” is that it may sound a little too frivolous as a pedagogical goal somehow, given the current climate. I remember the first time I met Kirsten I was at a conference workshop where teachers and parents went around and said their goals for their kids’ education and many people said something along the lines of, “I just want my kids to be happy.” I somewhat grumpily argued that it isn’t “happiness” as we currently tend to use the word, for me, as much as it is fulfillment, actualization, or, now I suppose I might say engagement. Maybe it’s splitting hairs really. I would agree that if you see a learner who seems really happy, they are indeed very very likely to be engaged. Just that I could also see and would value a type of engagement that leads one towards anger, determination, sorrow, etc. too.

        Posted by Paul Freedman | September 30, 2012, 2:03 pm
  5. Irrelevant. That’s what education is becoming. Not sure why but definitely feeling it. We corral students for what purpose? I am afraid that the eductional gig is up. Where do we go from here? Break it down, make it relevant and provoke the engagement for students to carry on. Tipping point. Difficult but the process will set us free. As teachers, we must begin candid conversations, dismiss any fear of criticism, teach those furthest from the student that things are in jeopardy. Let go of the old pedogogy…it is outdated. Real paradigm shift.

    Posted by Sandy | October 1, 2012, 11:33 pm
    • I totally agree, Sandy. So given that we are reaching the end of an epoch, what is the committed revolutionary to do? Many brothers and sisters fight from within the “belly of the beast.” I could no longer do so and remain sane and positive, and so decided to do what I could to create a counter-hegemonic vision, leading by example and showing what could be done if constraints and “old-school” thinking were abandoned. And I do keep looking for and expecting to see those “tipping points.” I wondered if the recent Chicago Teachers Strike might be it, the moment that gathers force behind the critical mass. At what point does everyone just open up the window and shout, “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore?” I also had hope for the simplicity of JT Gatto’s Bartleby Project, and last year’s Occupy movement, but no, I guess we’re not quite there yet.

      But those who hold power within this crumbling facade are not likely to yield their authority easily. And while we wait and agitate for “paradigm shift,” as many have been doing for the last 50 years, the kids keep showing up each morning and looking doe-eyed for the leadership of their teachers. So what are we going to do and say tomorrow, and Wednesday and Thursday? How do we move the meter incrementally, individually and locally in our given workplace environment? I think that’s really what this whole blog site is about. Realizing that “the gig is up” does not obviate the need for clear pedagogy, vision and action. So what can we do in the classroom? To me, pushing towards a practice of engaged pedagogy, ultimately to be defined by each educator and learner individually, is a healthy course.

      Thanks so much for the dialogue.

      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 2, 2012, 2:17 am
  6. I am bringing those hallmarks you shared with Kirsten to my school with me –

    With thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 4, 2012, 7:55 pm


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