Schools that Engage Students: How Do We Create Them?

Schools that Engage Students: How Do We Create Them?

by Travis Cooper

Before you read this post I’d like to ask you a favor. If you’re a teacher, I’d like you to take 30 seconds, close your eyes, and remember or imagine your favorite student. For parents, imagine the kind of student you’d like your child to become. Take a few seconds to think, remember, and smile.

Thanks for playing along.

If I can attempt to read your mind, I’d like to describe the student you’re thinking about. The student you’re remembering or imagining is motivated. She is interested in the topic at hand. He thinks broadly and makes connections between class discussions and the outside world. She works hard, collaborates with teachers and students often, and goes above and beyond what is expected of her. In short, these students are motivated and engaged! They represent the proverbial fire in the William Butler Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Because there is almost universal agreement about the importance of cultivating student engagement in schools, the guiding question for all of us is, “How do we engage students?” Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, suggests that there are three building blocks of motivation when creativity and higher level thinking are required: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Pink defines these terms as:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.

Purpose: The yearning to act in the service of something larger than ourselves.

I think these three building blocks are a great place to start when we think about what kinds of schools are most likely to engage students.


Schools that put autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the heart of their curricula will have common elements. These schools will maximize student choice, foster a student’s ability to improve at their own pace, and help students identify connections between their own passions and the larger world. These schools will recognize that the responsibilities of learning should be largely placed on students. Teachers in these schools are viewed as coaches that help students improve on skills that both student and teacher have identified as areas for improvement.

There are also barriers to building schools that focus on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The large size of many schools makes offering a sufficient level of autonomy to create an individualized schedule and pick one’s own classes more difficult. Due to relatively structured schedules and time limitations, mastering academic and social skills at one’s own pace can be hard.

Heavily structured curricula can also be the enemy of engagement. When students have no say in what they learn, they take a passive role in the classroom. Students in these environments are there simply to receive information, instead of to help create classroom content that offers a unique direction to the class.

When we imagine the kinds of students we hope to create we must consider the environments and curriculum structures that we hope will cultivate these characteristics in our students. Schools that offer flexibility, individualization, and a platform for students to be purposeful offer the best model for engaging students. If we can build educational institutions that place autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the heart of what they do we can give the world the greatest gift: our favorite students.