“The students were engaged” – a meaningless phrase

I have frequently on this blog commented on the fact that genericism is one of the biggest problems we face in education (http://viewrz.com/video/genricism). Being generic means we don’t have to be specific, but being specific is good because it forces us to say exactly what we mean. If we are specific we can’t get away with meaningless platitudes.

A very good example of this is the use of the word ‘engaged’.

How many times have you heard “the pupils were really engaged in your lesson” or “this lesson would have been better if those boys had been more engaged”. My hunch would be that you’ve heard this more than once.

But what on earth does it mean?

On its own, it actually means very little. The word ‘engaged’ is sometimes used to mean ‘having fun’ or ‘enjoying oneself’. If this is what someone means when they say ‘the pupils should be more engaged’ then they should just come out and say it. “This lesson would be better if those pupils were having more fun” or “Have you thought about how you can ensure those boys are enjoying themselves more in your lesson”.

I think normally, however, people are referring to something more complex than that when they use the word ‘engaged’. The trick here is to specify just what it is that the pupils are engaged in. This demands that one specifies precisely what it is that the pupils are doing on which you are commenting. Are they engaged in listening attentively to the teacher? Are they engaged in discussing the consequences of the Seven Years’ War? Are they engaged in a systematic attempt to undermine the lesson?

The point here is, clearly, that in order for the word ‘engaged’ to be meaningful, we have to specify what the students are engaged in. Once we have specified that, then the word begins to become redundant. Using the examples above, I could easily move from

“The pupils were engaged in listening attentively”


“The pupils were listening attentively”.

There is no need for me to say

“The pupils were engaged in discussing the consequences of the Seven Years’ War”

when I could just say

“The pupils were discussing the consequence of the Seven Years’ War”.

You’ll notice in the first example that I am able to be even more precise in my description of what is happening by deploying an adverb (attentively). I could, alternatively, have said the pupils were listening ‘reluctantly’ or ‘enthusiastically’.

So this is why the word ‘engaged’ is actually redundant. If I simply mean “the pupils are having fun” then I can just say that and be nice and specific in my feedback. If I want to comment on what pupils are doing (listening, discussing, dismantling the lesson) then I can explicitly comment on that too.

The use of the word ‘engaged’ obfuscates – in an attempt to say something generic, we end up saying nothing at all.

So let’s ditch this word.







7 Comments on “The students were engaged” – a meaningless phrase

  1. Michael Fordham // 30 October 2014 at 00:23 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Quite wonderful, Michael. You really are the voice of sanity in history teaching (and in this case it’s not confined to history either).

  3. (Mind you, I have had two students at university who were indeed engaged!)

  4. Matt Bradshaw // 31 October 2014 at 08:23 // Reply

    Couldn’t agree more Michael. What is even more pernicious about the term ‘engagement’ is the subtle range of assumptions that can exist in a school culture (or even in an individual observer) about what this word means. The danger being twofold the observed teacher who gets feedback of this nature doesn’t know how to improve and an outside observer (e.g. Ofsted) may not share those assumptions. It also leads to lazy, impecise and unrealistic judgements about learning. I have been in a room with some of the most outstanding educators in my generation and yet I can also say I have never been in a room when everyone has been completely actively attentive\interested\focused\having fun for a whole hour.

  5. Jolly sensible. In fact, you’ve inspired me to re-write a report for an ITE assessment expunging all references to the ‘E’ word!


  6. I agree that the term “engagement” in your examples is in each to a greater or lesser extent superfluous. That is however largely due to the construction of the statements rather than anything to do with the terms “engaged” or “engagement”.

    I like the work engaged as it implies an active participation, on an involmenet.

    To say someone is “engaged” in simply means they are doing something proactively for me.

    In this statement…

    “The pupils were engaged in listening attentively”

    ……engaged is superfloous as “attentively” implies engagement.

    To say “engaged in listening” for me implies active participation and therefore “attentively” would be superfluous.

    To say “listening” does not imply active participation.

    Similarly “discussing” implies active participation rather than just participation.

    I actually like the word engagement exactly because it implies active participation i.e. involvement.

    The student who is “engaged with the task” is for me actively participating and active participation is for me a key ingredient of understanding or as some like to say deep learning

    I have no objection to people ignoring the word “engaged” if they do not find that it adds value. I have no problem with the use of the word “engage” in a variety of ways.

    To suggest that the word “engaged” is synonymous with the word fun is I believe simply wrong and therefore should not be used in this way. This is not the fault of the word, it is the fault of the user.

    I will continue to use the phrase”engaged with the problem”, ” engaged in the discussion” and “engaged in/with the lesson”.

    I will not use the phrase “a colourful red, blue and green shirt” as “red, blue and green” implies colourful. As it is with engaged.

    Engagement = active participation, does it for me.

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