Beyond Engagement: Making School Personal

Engagement matters, but we have to think beyond engagement. — David Price

A group of colleagues who recently attended the ASB Unplugged conference assembled a thoughtful reflection document upon their return. Two connected statements stood out for me: “The debate is over” … “Technology is a given.” It may be overly-simplistic to think that these perspectives really are a given. No aspect of learning has more apologists than the field of educational technology. My colleagues are right, of course: most educators have moved beyond the debate. If this is the case, what comes next?

I subscribe to David Price’s conviction that learning should be about moving beyond engagement. There is obviously a more ambitious goal for our students than engagement alone. Ultimately, what are young people going to do with the things we engage them in? I would suggest that if the answer to this question is not something compelling, we should encourage our young people to stay home and surf the internet, travel, sleep or read a good book. As Price suggests, “This is why great educators want their students to think like scientists, engineers, artists — being engaged is just the first, though necessary, step in being ready for the world of work.”

When we talk about inquiry-based learning, project based-learning, or personal learning, our ultimate objective transcends pedagogy. Schools talk about developing global citizens and lifelong learners, but surely there is something more inspirational at stake in what we want for our students than these noble, but ultimately hollow terms? Jeremy Rifkin talks about the dawning of “the Collaborative Age” in which, “students will come to think of knowledge as a shared experience among a community of peers. … The goal is to stimulate collaborative creativity, the kind young people experience when engaged in many of the social spaces of the Internet. The shift from hierarchical power, lodged in the hands of the teacher, to lateral power, established across a learning community, is tantamount to a revolution in pedagogy.”

But why this revolution? We must help our teachers to look beyond engagement. We must help our students to look beyond the target of grades. We must help our parents to see beyond the ambition of a good college or university. Each of these things is merely a means to an end, but what is the real end we want for our students? One of our new courses, “Making a Difference” encapsulates the purpose of modern schools. When we care deeply about something in a personal way we are more likely to act upon that thing. When we talk about personalizing learning, it is with the ambition that we will help nurture young people who will make a genuine difference rather than, as Alfie Kohn warns, simply doing something that, “requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week”. For Kohn the imperative is personal learning, “that entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.”

This should be a core part of the dialogue in our schools today. How do we develop and combine, as Friedman suggests, a business school brain with a social worker’s heart? How do we equip our young people to live fulfilled lives, whether modest or remarkable, that have personal meaning? Not everyone can change the world or bear the burden of transformational ambition, but just being connected to a greater, common good can sometimes be enough. If that connection results in happy, ethical citizens, I think that is a mission worth working towards. With the global networks now at our disposal, our students can truly make a difference in the world, for themselves, and for others.


David Price, OPEN: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future
Thom Markham, Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World
Jeffrey Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
Alfie Kohn, Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”

Graphic: Bryan Mathers

Originally published at on March 13, 2016.

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