For a while we all occupied the same space together. We observed the same lesson, listened to the same voices, and breathed the same air. But we all came away with very different conclusions about what we witnessed.

The principal guided parents of incoming ninth graders in and out of this classroom all day. It was one a few classrooms in her building that she could “bank on” to be a hit with visitors (and the one she suggested we film).

When the principal opened this classroom door she could depend on seeing engaged and well-disciplined students. The teacher was passionate about her subject (English literature) and it showed. She recited passages from the book they were all reading by heart and spoke with enthusiasm and authority. The curriculum was 100% aligned with standards, the learning objective written neatly on the white board.

My companions, film professionals, gave the class rave reviews. “She really knew what she was doing in there; the students were so well-behaved,” I heard them say.

What none of them knew, not even the camera operators, was that what we were actually filming was a prime (and common) example of student disengagement.

Our cameras were trained on a single, randomly selected student in the front row. We “dummy mic'd” several students giving students the impression that our objective was to film the teacher’s interaction with all the students. But in reality, only the teacher’s and this one student’s mic were operating. We trained a tight lens on this student for 90 minutes (it was a block period, ostensibly to allow for deeper work and project-based learning opportunities).

After filming, we calculated the amount of time this student was reading, writing, listening and speaking academically during this 90-minute period. The results are heart breaking and stunned the teacher.

During the 90-minute period this student sat and listened (mostly to the teacher) for 86 minutes. He participated once, to ask a clarifying question (taking less than 10 seconds) and read for a total of 3 minutes. He never wrote. According to the students we spoke with and the teacher herself, this was a typical class and this student is a good student.

The teacher spent the evening before re-reading the chapters and preparing for a discussion. But the discussion was really only between herself and 4-5 students. The remaining 20 students were passive listeners. Those who did participate were only marginally active and engaged. They responded to the teacher’s questions rather than asking their own. They were rarely pressed to back up their claims with evidence or take on a different perspective or explain in great detail. These were cognitive activities that were taken on by the teacher.

What happened in that classroom that people missed? Taken together, it looked lively and engaging. But a closer look, a tighter frame, revealed something very different. The students were compliant, not curious. They knew exactly how to “do school” but it was a classic example of how “learning gets lost.”

What does engagement look like then? If you were to witness true engagement in action, what specific things would you see, hear, or even feel?

Here’s my initial Take. What Might You Add?

• Students are doing most of the (academic) talking

• Students are asking the majority of the questions

• Teacher moving in and around students rather than rooted at the ‘front’

• Students physically leaning into their work

• Happy buzz of discussion/conversation distributed among all students

• Students groaning when it’s time to conclude