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Everything I know about engagement I learned in kindergarten

It is easy to see that part of this problem is that the more time in school, the more disconnected it gets from how we learn. This is where Connected Learning really strikes home for me. As Mimi Ito states in a recent Huffington Post piece, “Connected learning is when you’re pursuing knowledge and expertise around something you care deeply about, and you’re supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose.” Ryan Bretag,  Metania blog

The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure. There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening -- ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students -- not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college. Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education.

Do these findings suprise anyone? In my own experience and from listening to my own children, this is an accurate graph. The only change I'd make would be to extend the engagement drop through the first two years of college before the direction moves upward again when general education requirements are met.

As both Bretag and Busteed suggest above, some correlations between engagment, relevance, and project-based learning can be easily and correctly drawn. I've been fussing about the need for concrete ways to improve projects since, oh, about 1999. And it's obvious nobody has been listening and now look what's happened. Maybe another approach?

Perhaps our elementary collegues know something about engagement that secondary teachers don't? With apologies to Robert Fulghum. It's been more than a couple years since I attended kindergarten, but I remember it as three of the best years of my life (old joke). Anyway...

Everything I know about engagement I learned in kindergarten

In kindergarten you get

  1. Show and tell. You got to do something or bring something and then tell others about it. Secondary skill attainment measurement needs to be less about testing and more about show and tell performance-based assessment. Oh, and listening to other students is a lot more involving than listening to the old person in the room.
  2. Choices. As a little kid you often got to choose - your library book, your reading buddy, your activity, the subject of your drawing. People tend to choose things that interest them and interesting things are engaging. How often do we let older students choose?
  3. Play. Elementary teachers can make a game out of almost anything - and make just about every task feel like play. The older we get, the less we get to play and more we have to work. Just why is that? Gamification is a fancy term for putting play back into the curriculum. Look it up.
  4. Naps. Most adolescents I know are tired - and not because they've been up all night texting. (Well, maybe that's part of it.) We've long known that teens do better when school starts later in the morning. Tired people have a tough time staying engaged.
  5. To go outside. The best learning takes place in the "real world" not in the classroom. Whether it is studying bugs and leaves in first grade, marching with the band in junior high, or doing service learning as seniors, we all are more interested when it is the real world with which we are dealing.
  6. Colors. A blank sheet of construction paper and some crayolas have always let young learners be creative. Creativity is inherently engaging. What's the high school classroom's equivilant to scissors and paste? 
  7. To do it together. Reading groups. Play groups. Science groups. It's better with other kids. Social learners are engaged learners.
  8. Reading for enjoyment. Our elementary teachers and librarians want us to practice reading so much they let us read what we like! Do our secondary teachers want us to write so much, know so much, experiment so much, and solve problems so much that we get to do it for enjoyment?
  9. Learning that's important. Nobody needs to convince a little kid that learning to read, to add and subtract, or to know about firemen is important. And that you should pay attention when being taught these things. Calculus, world history, the Romantic poets, the atomic structure of non-metals, not so much. If you can't convince me what you are teaching should be important to me, teach something that is.
  10. Care. OK, this should have been the first one. I really believe a lot little kids are engaged because they know someone cares that they are. Yeah, the littlies are cute and cuddly and all that, but the gangly, awkward, homely teens need to know adults care too. When someone else is paying attention to you, you pay more attention yourself.

There you are - 10 simple steps to keep the engagement level from tanking.


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Reader Comments (13)


I am a K-5 librarian and the mother of 4 (OK so the oldest is 36 and the youngest is 26) but all I had to do was read the title of your post and think"Damned straight" before I sent this comment. Now I am going back to read the rest that I doubt I will find fault with. And if I do, well of course you know you will hear about it. ;)


January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Hi Janet,

I always welcome comments - both in agreement and disagreement. Add something that kindergarten taught YOU about engagement.

Thanks for reading,


January 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I think you might be interested to read this blog post by Punya Mishra in reference to the graph itself: "I was struck by a subtle but important piece of subterfuge in the graph—a piece of visual trickery to make a point, but a piece of trickery none-the-less."

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Kaldenberg

Hi Kathy,

The graph does seem to overstate the case (and we should all be more sensitive to this kind of manipulation.) Strains Gallup's credibility/objectivity. Thanks for the link. I am not sure this changes my perception of the importance of the problem, however.


January 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thought you'd like to know that I forwarded this blog post to my Middle School Director and to our Upper School Director/Chief Academic Officer. They both loved it and re-shared. The Upper School Director even re-posted part of it in his weekly blog!

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCheri Dobbs

Hi Cheri,

Your comment made my day! Thanks for passing on the link to your director's blog.

Hope you are staying warm in MI.


January 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

I get on here even LESS these days while being a stay-at-home, but I still enjoy your posts. Especially loved this one. Sometimes it makes the days go more smoothly to remember to think like a teacher and figure out what I want the kids to experience today. Getting outside in particular is SO important (that's something I've let go in "grown-up land" and have now remembered to revive).

Thanks once again for your posts!

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

Hi Libby,

Great to hear from you. I really don't know how stay at home moms do it. We have the 2 1/2 year old grandson here for a weekend and we are both exhausted by Sunday night!

I worry about kids not getting outdoors enough. (Last Child in the Woods book scared me.) The whole society is so terrified of stranger danger, that the freedom my generation had as kids is simply gone.

Go out for a walk!


January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

The graph despairingly shows a huge sense of involvement for the elementary aged learners contrasted to high school, where there is not near the amount of involvement. Older students should be incorporated into this learning process also. I know that naps are mostly perceived the older populous as something that is for kids. However, studies have shown that even in some of the larger corporations, that a 30 minute nap can really invigorate the workers. Involved learning takes participation from all those that are going to partake in an activity. High School students don't do as many involved activities, perhaps because some of them work, have sports activities, band, and other types of extracurricular activities. The possibility also exists that teachers on a high school level haven't been conditioned to teaching students on the secondary level as much as on the primary level. Finally, learning should be fun. It is a collaborative process that involves a lot of proactive thinking and preparation, but in the end is a rewarding experience.

July 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDon Nesbitt

I agree with including all of his points from kindergarten on. I strongly suggest that show and tell be mandatory for each class, ensuring that it was content appropriate for each subject. It would break up the monotony of everyday class and give students a new perspective. Also, instituting a naptime/relax time could be extremely beneficial. A twenty minute nap might recharge students for the afternoon classes. The students could have the option of extra study time with the 20 minutes or simply time to disengage from classes for a while.

June 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterclayton mitchell

Thanks for the comment, Clayton. I'd forgotten about this old post. I like your idea for naps - especially for adult classes!


June 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hello Doug. I posted a comment but it seems to have disappeared? Is there a way to search comments?

July 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoderick A Bryan

Hi Doug,

I believe that students engage best when you involve their style of learning. If a student is a visual learner it creates a challenge for them to learn by reading. If you show that you care the student will open up and engage because this shows you are willing to listen. A lot of people are quick to judge or put you down but not so quick to listen. Statements like let's do it together shows not only concern but also a connection. Giving students attention and trying to go that extra mile they will compare your efforts to other relationship they have and if your effort is great it creates a bond and trust.


July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarkeith

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