Why “Engage” If Everyone Understands “Participate”?

Ken Royal with Michael Fullan at an EFF Debate

Ken Royal (right) with Michael Fullan (left) EFF Debate

I’ve just spent some time beating the stuffing out of myself for using the words engage and engagement too much, when speaking of what we’d like students to do, and what we’d like education products and solutions to do, too. The word engage seems to be best suited for use with something mechanical—for example engage the clutch of an automobile. I’ve become a lot less fond of the word engage, lately, probably because in education I think the word participate is better. We really want students to participate sounds a lot better to me than we want to engage them. I’ve been thinking about words we use in education a lot lately. Most of them have not been fully defined, or understood to satisfy me, yet. Just saying them or using them in short statements doesn’t always give, or add to their meanings.

I’m certain students in the classroom wouldn’t say they were engaged, but would have no problem saying they participate. Students know when and where they are comfortably participating—and for that matter where they jump to the challenge of participation. Students are not made up of gears and widgets, so moving them to learning participation isn’t a mechanical endeavor, and absolutely doesn’t happen like clockworks. Using the right terminology for what a good teacher can do to have students participate needs to be used. Everyone understands participation.

But you see the word engage everywhere, right? So, it has to be something kids need to do, and teachers need kids to do, right? Ask yourself this, when was the last time you were engaged? Now, ask yourself when you last participated? The first question’s answer may involve a ring. I’m thinking, though, the second probably struck the right chord. I know that if I’m a parent on parent’s night, or open house at school, listening to my child’s teacher, I’d rather hear the words—“your children will enjoy participating”—rather than, “we’re going to engage your kids.”

Who thinks up this stuff? Well, I guess we sort of all do, but it is especially great fun for marketing and PR people, who create initial buzz about a product or solution. Afterwards, really good solutions usually speak for themselves. Then think of all the words you use to share your favorite classroom solutions. On second thought, maybe that’s not such a good idea—words like COOL, KILLER, and AMAZING, probably aren’t the universal shouts out we need to hear, and I doubt they and other words like them have publishing punch. We can fall in love with words that don’t have the right education meaning, or don’t convey the proper education thoughts. If you still like engage better—fine—but I prefer participate better. You say engage, and I’ll say participate—but let’s not call the whole thing off. And if I can share how to do something innovative in a classroom, and the word engage does it best—well, I may just have to use it. I’m stubborn but I love to participate!

About the Author:

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.

Ken Royal

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is an Education storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.
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