When I heard the news that Phil Schlechty had passed away it was sudden and I felt sadness. I’ve never met Phil but I’ve been deeply impacted by his work throughout the years. You see it’s one of the things I’m learning about education and writing in this whole connected place: We get to know people through their work, we get to know people through their passions, and we get to know people who we actually don’t know face-to-face.

Schlechty’s work around engagement is one of the most enlightening and simple frameworks for educators to use. What I found fascinating about his levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.

Schlectly level of engagements

As a teacher, it’s easy to work towards compliance. And most of us have been taught that compliance is a good thing. We’ve seen this in our own lives as students. We’ve seen this in our own personal lives. We’ve seen this as employees. Compliance is almost always rewarded.

And so compliance is easy to do, it is easy to teach, and it is easy to reward. But when all we work towards is compliance, we don’t get anywhere near full engagement.

What Schlechty explained so well is the difference between compliance and engagement. In his levels, the two factors that dictate whether a student is compliant or engaged are commitment and attention.

In an article I wrote titled, “An Epic Guide to Student Engagement“, I put it like this:

For some reason, classroom management’s connection to student engagement was not part of my discussions as an undergrad, student teacher, or even first year teacher. We seemed to miss the piece that a “well managed classroom” doesn’t necessarily mean students are learning, and classroom management is actually very easy when students are engaged.

Students in an engaged learning environment have high attention and high commitment because of their intrinsic motivation and desire to actively learn, create, and contribute to the experience.

Students who are strategically compliant or ritually compliant may have levels of attention and commitment. But the attention and commitment have been forced by extrinsic factors (grades, tickets, rewards, quiz tomorrow, etc).

Today I want to look at a slightly different take on engagement which is the power of full engagement. By Schlechty’s definition, this would be high attention and high commitment (from intrinsic factors).

The Power of Full Engagement

I recently read, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr.  It ties in nicely with Schlechty’s work. The authors make the case that engagement is tied directly to our energy levels. That energy (not time or any other factor) contributes to whether or not we have a full level of attention and commitment.

The book lays out Four Energy Management Principles for Full Engagement (and the benefits of full engagement impact our performance whether in the workplace or as a student in the classroom or on your own as an individual entrepreneur or creator):

Principle 1: Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Human beings are complex energy systems, and full engagement is not simply one-dimensional. The energy that pulses through us is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. All four dynamics are critical, none is sufficient by itself and each profoundly influences the others. To perform at our best, we must skillfully manage each of these interconnected dimensions of energy. Subtract any one from the equation and our capacity to fully ignite our talent and skill is diminished, much the way an engine sputters when one of its cylinders misfires.

Principle 2: Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.

We rarely consider how much energy we are spending because we take it for granted that the energy available to us is limitless. … The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion. … We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints— fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront us.

Principle 3: To build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do.

Stress is not the enemy in our lives. Paradoxically, it is the key to growth. In order to build strength in a muscle we must systematically stress it, expending energy beyond normal levels. … We build emotional, mental and spiritual capacity in precisely the same way that we build physical capacity.

Principle 4: Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy— are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance.

Change is difficult. We are creatures of habit. Most of what we do is automatic and nonconscious. What we did yesterday is what we are likely to do today. The problem with most efforts at change is that conscious effort can’t be sustained over the long haul. Will and discipline are far more limited resources than most of us realize. If you have to think about something each time you do it, the likelihood is that you won’t keep doing it for very long. The status quo has a magnetic pull on us.

These apply to us as teachers, leaders, and parents. But they also apply to our students. Many who are stuck sitting in classrooms for hours at a time with their energy concentrated in other areas of their life. Answer these four questions to take a quick pulse on where you are (and where your students may be) in terms of full engagement:

  1. Are you physically and emotionally prepared to give your attention and commitment to the learning process?
  2. Is your energy level consistently a series of highs and lows or is there a steady pace you can keep to stay engaged?
  3. Do we consider learning a process like athletic training? How might that mindset change energy levels?
  4. Do you (or your class) have positive rituals and habits that lead to sustainable energy and engagement?

I’d love to hear some answers in the comments. This is something I both struggle with as a learner and as a teacher. Energy is so quickly diffused but so essential to the learning process. Would love to hear how you keep energy levels up and engagement high for both yourself and your students!

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • BarbL says:

    This could provide a missing element for a few of my students (and myself!). The next question for me is how do I build routines to rest for energy in my class. Mindfulness? Choice? Modeling? Experiencing inspirational stories? And what are effective ways to help students increase their efforts? That seems to be happening in fits and starts in my class as students experience success and then hit obstacles.

  • This is thought-provoking on many levels. I love the idea of discussing this with students as a way to enhance metacognition and to enrich their thinking about their own learning. It also is useful for consideration when selecting projects for Project-Based Learning. It is about the long haul and the fluctuations we all experience. Forewarned is forearmed. This also gives us a way to think about students that resist “compliance.” So much to consider here —our personal life can’t be overlooked either. Thanks.

  • […] A.J. Juliani, a guru of Genius Hour and project-based learning, featured an excellent blog post abou…, targeting primarily for teachers but an epiphany for me regarding students. He open with a graphic […]

  • I have been mulling this over in my mind and I am really appreciating this bit: “We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints— fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before jumping back into the fray to face whatever challenges confront us.” Too often I see classrooms where the teacher is pushing for students to be 100% engaged 100% of the time and there is frustration across the board when this doesn’t happen. I would prefer to see teachers who allow students the ebb and flow of energy, creating more sprints and fewer endurance races.

    As a side note, is the image you used something that can be made available in a high-definition format? I’d love to print it off and post it in my office!

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