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Promoting Genuine Engagement in the Classroom

By Travis Hostetter
Promoting Genuine Engagement in the Classroom

Helping our students to move from cooperation to collaboration takes a strong effort from the educator. While most students are simply cooperative in working with their classmates or teacher, the real magic happens when learning is collaborative. The term cooperation implies a compliance rather than a participation in pedagogy. Through collaboration, however, students have the opportunity for genuine engagement that enables them to take ownership of their own learning.

Collaboration can transform classrooms where students are compliant to become learners who have voice, choice, autonomy, and ownership of their own learning. The goal is to center students at the heart of learning, where students ask questions that drive their inquiry, and for teachers to be responsive to the needs of individual and collective students as a result of a range of student data. It is important to find the time to take risks as we continue to nurture a kind of learning design that is responsive to students and to develop a classroom culture where students learn from each other. 

A collaborative classroom promotes genuine engagement in learning and provides the opportunity for autonomy. Students have helped choose what they are learning, how they are being assessed, and how they will learn. It is shifting the idea that students are passive learners, going along with what the teacher has decided, to being the architects of their own learning process. It is about increasing engagement, excitement, and achievement by giving the students a voice at the table.

Imagine a sports team or orchestra that is full of members that all know their roles. They know just when to do one action and when to avoid another. They follow the directions of their leader and agree to do their part. They understand that they are just one component of the group’s performance and follow directions. For many, the scenario sounds quite ideal. But what happens when stress, unforeseen problems, or failure creeps in? The group can easily fall apart. That is because all members are agreeing to cooperate together. They do not necessarily have an individual sense of ownership.

Cooperation is the idea that members adhere to a set of guidelines, expectations, or instructions for a common goal or as a means to an end. Someone cooperates because they have to or are expected to, not necessarily because they want to. When we look at our students, we have to wonder if they are performing in class simply to cooperate with their teacher and classmates. Are they hoping to gain something from cooperating, or avoid something else? In either case, it can be a more self-driven act to cooperate.

Collaboration requires a much messier approach, albeit a more exciting one. While we still need guidelines for the group, it is more about turning power over to the members and everyone playing a more equal part in decision making, rather than agreeing to follow a leader. This can lead to much higher student excitement and engagement, which of course increases what skills and understandings the students gain.

What does a classroom that promotes genuine engagement look like? Collaborative. As with all student learning, it starts with the teacher. A collaborative educator finds ways for students to have a voice in what they learn, how they learn, and how that learning is being assessed.

Let’s take for example, a fifth-grade teacher is teaching about fractions. Typically, the teacher will look at the standards, design the summative assessment, and then work on lesson plans. This by itself is not wrong and is commonly a best practice.

But what if the teacher opened the unit by spending 15-20 minutes talking with her students about what they know already, what they hope to know, and what they will be able to do with this new knowledge, oftentimes demonstrated with projects. The teacher would then design the assessment to align with these student voices. Yes, you will still cover the standards, but the students will have so much more buy-in as they are no longer passive receivers, but architects in their learning.

The power of collaboration comes not only from the front end (lesson planning, assessment design, etc.), but also throughout. In this same scenario, the class has decided that all students must have an 85% minimum score to be successful on the fraction’s unit. For two weeks the teacher has been instructing, assessing the students through class work and activities, and still three students are not meeting the class goal. What are we to do?

Since the class has invested in the design of the learning and creation of the goal, this is a great opportunity for further collaboration. Peer to peer tutoring, support, and review can be a wonderful strategy for helping those who are a bit behind. Because learning and achieving is no longer an individual competition, all want to see all members succeed. Imagine a class that has a teacher and students who are willing to take extra time to help those who have yet to master a unit! Collective responsibility is incredibly powerful.

But I don’t have enough time...

As you can see, this model takes a different mindset and time to fully implement. Yet, we as educators feel like we are always out of time. The need to cover every standard, prepare students for exams and testing, and be compared to our peers on how our students perform certainly make cooperation more convenient over collaboration.

This can make experimenting with a collaborative classroom feel like a risk. However, I would challenge you to think about what you lose by not trying. The classroom culture, positive atmosphere, and the true focus on learning as a cohort are too great to pass up. Even if you cannot afford the class time to have such a big and meaningful discussion for each unit (although this could be done in 10-15 minutes with experience), ask for volunteers or select students of varying abilities to meet during lunch, recess, or another free time.

We all make time for the things that we think are important. If seeing your students collectively perform at a high level, not because you expect them to but because they expect themselves to, is worth it to you, then you will make time. Bounce this idea off of a coworker and try collaborating with your learners.


Travis Hostetter is a driven educator and leader having served in schools across five countries and four continents. He believes that the best way to create a great school is through humble leaders, teacher development, and student opportunities. The diversity throughout his US and international experience has led to him to see the great qualities of learning that transcend country, culture, and curriculum. Travis is currently serving as an administrator in Seoul, Korea, and you can contact or learn more about Travis at

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