All Articles Education “On Task” is not a waypoint on the route to engagement

“On Task” is not a waypoint on the route to engagement

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Can you recall a time when you were so engaged in learning that you became unaware of your surroundings, that each step of the process energized you to pursue your goal further, and the learning became its own reward?

Recently, I was working with a gathering of administrators from my county, contemplating the puzzle of student engagement. Most of the small groups in the room organized their exploration around the premise that on-task behavior is a necessary but insufficient step toward engagement. The T-charts they created focused on how an administrator observing a class might recognize subtle differences.

On Task


  • Compliant
  • Task completion
  • Restating
  • Science: Following lab procedures
  • Math: Accurate use of algorithms
  • Social Studies: Taking notes
  • Reading: Decoding
  • Music: Singing a song
  • Extending
  • Probing
  • Challenging
  • Science: Relating process to concept
  • Math: Real-world connection to algorithms
  • Social Studies: Debating
  • Reading: Enjoying and discussing a story
  • Music: Emotional connection with lyrics and audience

It occurred to the team from my district, however, that perhaps we weren’t looking at a simple linear progression. “What if,” we proposed, “On Task and Engaged were two independent dimensions of student learning behavior?” So we drew a four-quadrant grid with On Task as the horizontal axis and Engaged as the vertical. We began brainstorming what kind of student the four quadrants would represent, resulting in this chart.

Our district team had two insights as we created this diagram.

First, there are students in our classrooms who are off task (not participating in activities we have assigned) but are nevertheless engaged in learning. These are students who want to learn about the topic at hand; they are just going about it a different way. Perhaps they are having sidebar conversations, exploring unusual angles. These are kids who plot their own route, off our carefully paved path, reading ahead in the book and challenging us with things that seem irrelevant. We suspect they are the least-understood students in our classrooms.

Second, teachers favor the left side of the chart. While we’d like to have all students in the upper-left quadrant (on task and engaged), we seem to think that the lower-left quadrant is the next-best place to be. In fact, when students are in the lower right (off task and disengaged), our response is to impose compliance. This typically results in shoving students into the lower-left quadrant. Enforced compliance, however, doesn’t lead to better learning.

We began asking questions about this idea, which are worth consideration by teachers and administrators who observe their classrooms.

  1. What if instead of forcing kids to the left, we looked for ways to raise them up into the quadrant of off task but engaged? What kinds of teacher action would encourage a student to engage on his own terms without necessarily participating in our activity?
  2. What does engagement look like, and how do we get to a place where we can recognize, accept and nurture students in the upper-right quadrant?
  3. What do administrators need to understand about engagement to properly assess what is going on in a classroom during an observation?
  4. Could a classroom be transformed into a place where “on task” and “off task” no longer had any meaning, where all student activity that led to learning was honored and promoted?

Reflect again on the learning experience I asked you to think about at the start of this post. I asked a group of educators that same question in a recent workshop. Out of 22 people, only three mentioned things that had taken place in a K-12 school setting. It is imperative that we transform our schools and classrooms into places where powerful learning takes place every day. Preferring engagement, even (or especially) when it doesn’t involve compliance, might be a huge step in that direction.

Gerald W. Aungst (@geraldaungst) is the supervisor of gifted and elementary mathematics for the School District of Cheltenham Township in Pennsylvania, with 20 years’ experience as a public educator. He is a member of the National Association for Gifted Children Administrator Task Force and the Digital Learning Day educator advisory panel. He is a sought-after speaker and presenter, and his writing has appeared in publications by ASCD and the International Society for Technology in Education.