Authentic Engagement

Authentic Engagement is fostered when teachers design learning experiences that will intellectually and emotionally engage students. 


The Authentic Engagement driver of Powerful Learning explores how to:

  • create a culture of learning 
  • create a safe, welcoming and caring environment 
  • set up the physical and virtual learning spaces to maximize engagement. 

A thinking disposition or learning mindset is central to creating an engaging learning experience.

An emphasis is placed on creating a culture where high expectations are combined with challenging tasks, and where students are provided with the necessary supports to ensure their success. 

In other words, Authentic Engagement occurs in this culture that embraces academic challenge and values hard work built on relationships, a sense of belonging and trust. Students learn and understand what matters, and acquire a strong sense of purpose.


Student Engagement Definition

  1. Engagement invites teachers to design powerful ways of provoking thought and sustaining interest in an idea, question or problem. To ensure greater engagement it is important to explicitly design for it.
  2. Engagement involves motivation, attention, interest, participation and involvement. According to Marzano et. al (2011) four topics that constitute the model of attention and engagement are: emotions, interest, perceived importance and perceptions of efficacy.  When provided with opportunities to experience interactive learning/cooperative learning in a supportive environment, student engagement increases.
  3. Student engagement provides students with opportunities to experience interactive learning/cooperative learning in a supportive environment.


Engaged Learning Environments: What does it look like?

  • Learning is not constrained by time. Flow happens where you lose track of time and space when learning
  • Lessons are fluid and continually evolving
  • An atmosphere is created of self-worth, understanding and respect exists
  • Meaningful conversation flows between students and teachers; collaboration is fostered
  • Responsibility replaces accountability
  • All voices are heard and valued
  • Curiosity is fostered and questions are invited
  • Questions are being asked such as “why?” and “Why not?”
  • Everyone is a learner
  • There is excitement in academic challenge*

*Adapted from Pg. 157 (Engagement by Design, Fisher, 2018)


Learning Environments to Foster Intellectual Student Engagement

Student engagement has long been at the core of effective schooling. The type of engagement that is being fostered in Golden Hills is “Intellectual Engagement.” Engagement refers to the degree of motivation, attention, curiosity, interest, effort, enthusiasm, participation and involvement that students show when they are learning. According to Marzano et. al (2011) four topics that constitute the model of attention and engagement are:  emotions, interest, perceived importance and perceptions of efficacy. Student engagement involves providing students with opportunities to experience interactive learning/cooperative learning in a supportive environment. Engagement is understood in Golden Hills as a focus on framing learning using relevant and powerful questions, meaningful challenges and authentic applications that extend beyond the classroom and when possible have global connections.

Authentic Tasks

The importance of providing authentic tasks and inquiries is highlighted in Powerful Learning and task design considers what is meaningful and relevant for students. Efforts are made to provide authentic tasks defined as “tasks and inquiries that have personal meaning to students, reflect real life work, has students create and contribute to the world’s knowledge and demands a variety of roles and perspectives” (Galileo definition).

When learning moves beyond the classroom, students are engaged in being able to “observe, interact, collaborate and create with experts” in the community.  “Inquiries and tasks are developed that require student collaboration to acquire and use competencies expected from high-performance work environments: teamwork, problem posing, problem-solving, communication, decision making, and project management.” (Galileo). In the design of learning, every attempt is made by teachers to consider what the discipline calls for (i.e. in mathematics we consider how to help students to learn how to think like a mathematician). Golden Hills teachers also make every attempt to provide students with worthwhile work.

Thinking Culture

Learning experiences are designed to build a thinking culture in our classrooms and among teachers. These learning opportunities move students “beyond facts and basic skills to see the patterns and connections to related concepts, principles and generalizations” (Erickson et. al, 2017 pg. 15). “When students can understand the deeper, transferable significance of their learning, the thinking is integrated at the conceptual level” (Erikson et,.al pg 15). Students challenge themselves to think both creatively and critically as they make connections between, and among, ideas and situations they encounter. Explicit modeling of thinking occurs as teachers ask questions and also model how to analyze and problem solve.

Ritchhart et. al describes the “shapers” of cultures of thinking beginning with having a sense of purpose for the learning. Development of commitment occurs when there is a clear defined sense of purpose along with “challenge and connection” to the learning. The key forces that shape culture according to Ritchhart include “expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions and environment.”

Engaged Learning Environments: What Does It Look Like?

  • Learning is not constrained by time and you lose track of time and space when learning
  • Lessons are fluid and continually evolving
  • An atmosphere of self-worth, understanding and respect exists
  • Meaningful conversation flows between students and teachers; collaboration is fostered
  • Responsibility replaces accountability
  • All voices are heard and valued
  • Continually ask “why?” and “why not?”
  • Everyone is a learner
  • There is excitement in academic challenge*

*Adapted from Pg. 157 (Engagement by Design, Fisher, 2018)

Powerful Learning begins with a safe, caring and welcoming environment where learning grows out of a culture of care and empathy. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (1943) recognizes that the basic needs of safety, security, a sense of belonging and love must first be met. Readiness to learn is established once these basic needs are addressed. Brain research has found that stress and negative classroom experiences impair learning and that emotion takes over cognition. When a learner feels threatened, brain function is reduced. As stated by Sousa and Tomlinson, 2017, “the brain is quick to tune in to threat and slow to forget it.”

The importance of creating a safe learning environment is legislated in the Alberta Education School Act through Bill 10: “In order for children and youth to be successful in school it is important that the learning environment provides a sense of belonging, acceptance and safety (emotional, psychological and physical) to support success. Alberta Education, through the School Act, is focused on ensuring that schools are caring, respectful, safe, orderly, positive, productive and free from the fear of physical and emotional harm.”

(Bill 10, Alberta Education, 2015)


The Safe, Caring and Welcoming Environment: What does it look like?

  •  Time is spent listening first
  • Frequent questions are asked in order to understand and curiosity is nurtured
  • Meaning and purpose is evident as learners focus on significant issues and ideas
  • Classrooms are filled with dialogue instead of monologues
  • Students have voice in what and how they learn, and how they show what they learn
  • Teachers and students look for the problem behind misbehavior rather than seeing the child as the problem, and then find solutions rather than punishment
  • Teachers connect before they redirect behavior
  • Empathetic and nurturing tones are heard
  • Efforts are made to interpret the meaning behind behavior, the lagging skill or the unsolved problem
  • Instead of trying to control behavior, adults co-regulate with the student
  • Misbehavior is seen as an opportunity to teach the student more adaptive coping
  • Students are acknowledged in a non-judgmental manner
  • Learning is invited and flexibility and difference is embraced
  • Focus on assets rather than deficits
  • Built upon collaborative relationships
  • Teachers inspire a love of learning
  • Learners have the capacity to reach out to others with acceptance and trust*

*List generated from article “The Empathetic School”, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy, Educational Leadership, Vol.  75 No. 6 March 2018

Physical Learning Environment

The physical learning environment is intentionally organized to foster a deep understanding of curricular outcomes and create Powerful Learning classrooms. The “knowledge transmission” historical view of learning was suited for a predominantly individual activity of absorbing and memorizing decontextualized and fragmented information transmitted mostly by the teacher. This notion of classrooms and learning resulted in traditional classroom layouts with desks in rows facing the front of the classroom. In contrast, a “knowledge construction” or “concept attainment” view of learning requires a physical environment conducive to students constructing their understanding, through authentic, realistic learning experiences that resemble real life situations, allowing for meaningful learning and problem solving. The physical environment in the classroom allows for cooperative and collaborative learning in small groups, with versatile and flexible arrangements of tables and desks. Creating an environment that is flexible helps students’ transition seamlessly from one form of learning to another.

Students in the Powerful Learning classroom discover answers to questions and think through complex tasks by supporting an opinion or position with evidence, based upon criteria. This necessitates that a variety of materials, resources, technologies and books be available for students to explore and learn.

The physical environment of a classroom influences how students learn, how individuals interact and perform. Ritchhart, 2015, describes learning environments that fosters thinking “where learning is viewed as an active, collaborative endeavor that fosters the development of fluid intelligence- the ability to problem-solve, reason, and explore new ideas with others”. The classroom environment communicates what is valued and expected.

With these ideas in mind, the physical layout in the Powerful Learning classroom needs to allow for a variety of learning spaces within the classroom. Ideally, small working tables, with locking wheels can encourage ease of rearranging depending upon the learning activity. Space for individual learning is provided along with several collaborative spaces. A variety of books, resources and technology tools provide students with choice and voice as they read to discover ideas. The learning journey is documented on the walls and space for a “Thought board” tracks thinking overtime. The development of students as thinkers and learners are enhanced when the learning is captured, recorded or documented in some form. Student learning is displayed to inspire, invite and inform and not merely decoration (Ritchhart, 2015, pg. 236). Bulletin boards, smartboards and white boards serve as learning spaces. Materials to simulate real world content such as science are organized in open displays and bins, depending upon the curricular outcomes being worked on. Manipulatives, models and art materials suited to a variety of subjects including math are available. Classroom libraries of literature comprised of both narrative and expository text are also available.

Learning environments that foster Powerful Learning are described in the article “Campfires in Cyberspace” written by David Thornburg (2004). David identifies learning spaces within a classroom as the campfire, the watering hole, the cave and life. The campfire represents when students come together to listen and learn from the elder in the group, who passes on wisdom through storytelling. The watering hole is the learning space for small group work including conversational. The watering hole is the space for focus lessons as well, a component of the Daily Five. The cave is the space for students to work on their own to reflect, study and learn individually. “Life” is referred to not as a learning space but a reminder to highlight the need for knowledge to be used and applied in the real world. These descriptors are consistent with spaces suited to creating a Powerful Learning classroom.

Virtual Learning Environments

The virtual learning environment extends the physical learning environment beyond the classroom enabling students to experience learning first hand in ways not otherwise possible.  Utilizing technology in a meaningful way allows students to connect with others while exposing them to new ideas and experiences. Technology is harnessed as a tool to gather information, construct new understandings, document progression of concept attainment or extend learning through unique learner creations and innovations. Digital or virtual learning environments are limitless.

Technology used to facilitate the creation and communication of collaborative learning experiences enriches the learning environment. Galileo Learning Network identifies characteristics of strong inquiries and tasks to those that permit students to select appropriate technologies in order to create, contribute, connect and collaborate with others. Technology provides the opportunity to shift the emphasis of learning from content and skills to higher order tasks and thinking. Technology can also help Golden Hills teachers to meet the differentiated needs of learners, enabling all students to experience successful learning.

Two key questions should be considered when leveraging technology

  1. How can digital be leveraged so that learning can be facilitated, amplified, and accelerated while student-driven learning is cultivated?
  2. What transformative learning opportunities does digital provide that cannot be met with traditional approaches? (Fullan, p.81)

Effective Implementation and Integration of Technology

To facilitate the effective implementation and integration of technology into learning environments, the Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) created a Technology Integration Matrix (TIM) using five learning characteristics across five levels of technology integration. This matrix is meant to assist in assessment of technology use in lessons rather than rate a teacher or judge a task and includes video examples for each cell. These videos are also filtered into subject or grade level. Golden Hills encourages teachers to reach for the transformational level of technology integration in order to maximize learning opportunities.

Social-Emotional Learning Environments

Powerful Learning conditions will not only affect the physical and virtual learning environments, but the social-emotional learning environment as well. “Neuroscience is showing us that a sense of belonging plays a huge role in learning and protection against stress” (New Pedagogies for Deep Learning). Furthermore, the brain thrives in a learning environment where being accepted and valued are inherent. Learning occurs when the brain feels safe and unthreatened. In order for students to achieve Deep Understanding, several conditions need to be met.

Students need to feel:

  1. Safe – emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially
  2. Significant – students need to feel like they matter and that their voice is worth listening to
  3. A Sense of Purpose – students need to know why they are here, why they matter, and how their thoughts and efforts can make a difference.*

*Adapted from “What We Know About Well-Being: Connections to Deep Learning,” New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, 2019.

The attitudes that students bring to the learning experience are referred to as mindsets, dispositions and habits of mind. The mindsets that students bring to the classroom is also referred to in the literature as “dispositions”.

Learning mindsets refers to the set of skills and attitudes demonstrated by students in school.

The term mindset was first used by Stanford University Psychologist, Carol Dweck. The terms fixed and growth mindsets are defined by Carol with a fixed mindset referring to the idea that basic qualities such as intelligence or talent are fixed traits. Growth mindset is the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work.  Students who embrace the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere, may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.  Carol Dweck’s research emphasizes that growth mindset creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment and achievement.

Habits of Mind

“Habits of mind” are part of the typical or habitual way in which a person approaches a situation or task. Habits of mind may be defined in different ways, including disposition and thinking and learning strategies. The mindsets that students bring to the classroom is also refer to in the literature as “dispositions”. A disposition is an enduring characteristic or trait that motivates behavior (pg. 19-20 Ritchhart, 2015).

Collaborative Skills
Is willing to seek to include all participants
Is willing to take and give critical and productive feedback
Is willing to change tactics or approach and adjust behavior to the situation
Is able to empathize with those in diverse situations and context
Is willing to compromise and adjust thinking and behavior to the situation
Is inclined to seek several sources of information, solicit expert opinion and confer with others
Is willing to engage respectfully in discussion with others
Takes Initiative
Is willing to explore options, is naturally a divergent thinker, and is a self-starter


Manages social pressures and explores beyond popular beliefs

Is tentative in one’s belief until there is sufficient evidence or complexity to warrant a more definitive position
Intellectual Courage
Is willing to fairly assess ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints which others have not given serious consideration
Is continually monitoring that one’s beliefs and actions are well grounded
Learning Continuously
Is open to new learning and experiences, demonstrates intellectual curiosity, and is in a continuous learning mode
Knows one’s place in a bigger picture – can laugh at his/herself.  Is aware of one’s own knowledge and recognizes no one should claim to know more than they know. 
Thinking About Our Thinking
Is able to reflect on and evaluate the quality of one’s own thinking skills and strategies.  Is aware of one’s own actions and the effect of those actions on self, others and the environment.
Is open to alternative and opposing views
Intellectual Integrity
Is true to one’s own thinking and is consistent in the intellectual standards that apply

Learning Continuously

Is open to new learning and experiences, demonstrates intellectual curiosity, and is in a continuous learning mode

Thinking and Learning Strategies
Inquiring Mind (curious)
Is willing to go beyond face value, is inclined to inquire into matters and take up a challenge 
Tolerant of Ambiguity
Is willing to live with ambiguity, has developed the capacity to go beyond black-or-white answers
Persistent and Perseverant
Is willing to persist by thinking through problems in a thorough and careful manner 
Attentive to Detail
Is willing to engage in careful consideration  to detail
Critically Minded
Is able to evaluate information to determine levels of importance and contribution 
Is willing to establish criteria for assessing ideas toward generating productive advances in thinking and creating
Managing Impulsivity
Is able to consider alternatives and consequences of several possible actions prior to taking action
Taking Responsible Risks
Is able to view setbacks as interesting, challenging, and as a means to set goals for improvement.  Draws on past knowledge and knows that all risks are not worth taking.


Through powerful questions and learning tasks, Golden Hills teachers ignite inquiry in a sustained manner and “hook” student interest and motivation to learn. Sustained inquiry engages students in bigger questions that do not have immediate answers, questions that lead to more enduring investigations. It also develops habits of critical and creative thinking in all areas of learning.

Creating Curiosity and Connections

Real World Application When providing students with a goal that extends beyond the classroom students have a sense that what they are doing is important. Authentic Engagement occurs when the learner finds meaning and value in the work.
Posing Guiding Inquiry Questions Guiding questions create a clear focus that connects students to socially significant material and learning. This leads to exciting conversations that bring together the students’ lives, the course content, and the world in which they live as they consolidate concepts, vocabulary strategies and ideas.
Present Unusual Information Unusual information creates a sense of curiosity and invites students to engage by filling in bits of information that may be missing. Novelty and variety fosters engagement.
Connecting to Students’ Lives Analogy problems are effective ways to connect to students’ lives. Comparison tasks require students to relate new knowledge to topics of interest.
Clear and Modeled Expectations The student knows what success looks like and it has been modeled for the student. The criterion for the work is clear and understood by the student.
Gaining the Student’s Attention If a teacher does not have a student’s attention, there is little hope that the content being addressed will enter his or her working or permanent memory. Teachers can effectively use pacing and incorporating physical movement into lessons to help students feel energized; they can also demonstrate intensity and enthusiasm and use humor to help students feel stimulated.
Conducting Purposeful Research When students are able to use what they have learned to effect change in their communities directly, they are much more likely to feel the work is important.
Sense of Audience When an audience exists beyond the teacher, students have a sense of purpose and they tend to be more attentive when they know that someone is going to see their work.
Personal Relationships Establishing personal relationships and fostering positive peer relationships in a fair and supportive classroom atmosphere can also be effective.
Attending to Student’s Feelings Notice how students are feeling and set up a safe space to learn. If students are low on energy or feeling bored, frustrated, or rejected by the teacher or their peers, it is likely that they are not focused on learning.
Thinking Critically Cognitively complex tests that are perceived as important are engaging for students. Drawing conclusions supported with evidence invites students to think critically.

Student Ownership of Learning

Involving Students in Progress and Results

Tracking can reinforce efficacy and help students feel that they can do the required work.  It also allows them to see growth over time.


Teaching Self-efficacy Students should be directly involved in discussing self-efficacy and studying it first hand through correlating effort and preparation with achievement.
Involving Students in Planning and Monitoring

Develops self-efficacy as students chart their progress, on a specific learning goal, over time.


Provide Choice Building choice into activities helps students perceive classroom activities as important. Choice can be provided through allowing students to choose tasks, choice of reporting formats, choice of learning goals and choice of behaviors.
Personal Response The work or task allows for personal reaction and for the student to have their own thoughts. This would mean that there is more than one answer.
Self-reflection and Peer Reflection

Students use rubrics, checklists and guides to focus self-reflections

Teachers model and teach the tools of how to self and peer assess.


Using Effective Feedback

Praising effort and aspects of a task are highly motivational and steer students toward the intended result.


Varying Teaching Strategies

Games and Inconsequential Competition Help maintain situational interest. Games should always have an academic focus. They provide opportunities to test understanding through friendly competition. For exercises, check out: strategies.
Initiate Friendly Controversy

Controversy can trigger and maintain situational interest, especially when opposing views are expressed. Controversy should not be avoided. Friendly controversy should leave the students with some unanswered questions so they seek more information. Class votes on issues, a debate, a town hall meeting – which has students looking at various perspectives – the legal model and perspective analysis are opportunities to initiate friendly controversies around curriculum to create interest.

Incorporating constructive controversies into instruction can result in students inventing more creative solutions to problems, becoming more original in their thinking, generating and utilizing more ideas and analyzing problems at a deeper level.

Vary Questioning Asking questions engages a student’s working memory, thus eliciting students’ attention. To avoid other students from disengaging, several techniques are considered effective: call on students randomly, paired response, wait time, response chaining, choral response and simultaneous individual responses.
Involving Students in Monitoring Teachers can effectively use pacing and incorporating physical movement into lessons to help students feel energized; they can also demonstrate intensity and enthusiasm and use humor to help students feel stimulated.

Building choice into activities helps students perceive classroom activities as important. Choice can be provided through allowing students to choose tasks, choice of reporting formats, choice of learning goals and choice of behaviors.

5 Ways Student Choice Impacts Learning

  1. Choice improves student buy-in.
  2. Choice puts the responsibility back in the students’ hands.
  3. Choice allows for flexibility.
  4. Choice embraces current and new passions.
  5. Choice leads to growth.
Voice Encouraging students to have voice in the learning process, is an important part of engagement. Fisher et. al, talks about listening more than trying to convince others to agree with their exiting perspectives, making an intentional and authentic effort to learn from what is heard when listening, and taking responsibility to lead with others in taking actions that will make the world a better place (Quaglia, 2016).