Engagement is about participation. It’s a word relevant in civics, in social and cognitive psychology, and in education. Fundamentally, it’s about autonomy, motivation, and empowerment: you are engaged when you are motivated to purposefully direct your attention.

Attention is about focused concentration. The world is competing for your focus. External events cause your eyes to move, your ears to perk up, and your locus of attention – your single point of sensory awareness – jumps. Imagine sitting at a coffee shop, trying to read a book that just isn’t very good. Someone comes in, you look up. The espresso machine grinds, you look up. Nothing happens, and you look up; your scan of the room searches for something more interesting – more engaging – than the book in your lap. When you aren’t engaged, external events override internal self-talk and self-control, and your eyes, ears, and more importantly, brain, wanders.

Motivation is about understanding value. In learning, the phrase “Cognitive engagement” or the “Cognitive engagement model” describes a way of thinking about education that’s focused less on access to knowledge and more on ability and willingness to process and understand information. This model recognizes that, to be successful, a student must understand the value of what they are learning. Teaching is not simply providing access to content. And to foster this motivated stance, a teacher can utilize several teaching strategies, including:

  • relating the value of the knowledge to the value of something the learner already knows and values,
  • fostering higher-order talk and writing about the subject matter,
  • stating learning strategies explicitly,
  • encouraging active responses that require introspection and synthesis of ideas,
  • and explicitly stating the strategic purpose of the educational activity.


Dennis Littky runs a school called The Met. His graduation rate is “consistently above 90 percent, drawing from the same population that is victim of the 66 percent graduation rate in the regular public schools. And 98 percent of the Met’s graduates apply to college, with nearly all being accepted, and most of them are first-generation college students.” [link]

Littky’s method draws directly from the Cognitive engagement model. He identifies a topic that the student wants to learn about, and bases that students’ entire curriculum around that subject matter. Not surprisingly, the students he encounters don’t select typical academic subjects. Instead, they pick things like Hip Hop or, as he describes, dying. He recalls a story of one of his students who wanted to study death. The girl “proceeded to spend the year in and out of funeral homes and cemeteries.” His students are engaged, and so they participate by offering their attention and motivation. And once he has their motivated attention, learning occurs through sensemaking and synthesis.


I encounter the word “engagement” a lot when reading about digital products. It would appear to be the holy grail of social-media: an engaged audience is somehow more valuable to investors and to business owners. Somehow, in this context, the word engagement is always connected to email marketing or spam. Tips from the “pros” describe that “Email providers use a few metrics to determine engagement: opens, clicks, unsubscribes, abuse complaints, and just generally treating email like spam or not-spam.” A good email “re-engagement campaign” should, apparently, ask the question “What is the best way to draw them back in, not push them away?

The director of social business strategy at H&R Block describes that “…engagement and ROI depend on the particular program. For our marketing campaigns, engagement may mean likes, or shares or comments. But then for our educational series, views may be the engagement. The metrics continue to solidify over time, and there is no one answer to all programs.” As you ponder what, if anything, that means, you might also take a minute to ask yourself why H&R Block needs a director of social business strategy. Perhaps the next big thing will be to do your taxes with your friends.


The word engagement, and the marketpreneurs rallying around it, are missing something pretty fundamental. Facebook, pinterest, and instragram are engaging because people want to participate in these services. People are motivated to purposefully direct their attention: they see some form of personal value in the service. Fundamentally, engagement is a question of “value proposition.” In a world where time is the most limited resource we have, ask yourself – why would someone be motivated to direct their valuable attention your way? What’s in it for them?