Six Steps to Engage Students

One of the outcomes of the growth mindset movement is a dedicated focus on student engagement.  Schools are recognizing that teaching the standards requires the active participation of students.  This is an exciting and refreshing movement away from more traditional teaching methods.  Schools should feel unfettered when planning for instruction that combines both the rigor of higher standards with a pedagogy that excites young learners.

In his article, Engage Kids With Seven Times the Effect, Todd Finley identified the benefits of engagement for students.  He noted that they:

  • experience improved academic achievement and satisfaction
  • are more likely to persist through academic struggles
  • earn higher standardized test scores
  • have better social skills
  • are less likely to drop out of school

Teachers naturally want their students to be engaged in the instruction they provide.  They want their students to be absorbed in the learning process because their instincts tell them it supports long-term understanding.  The “how” of engagement can be challenging, even for experienced teachers.  Planning for active student engagement requires meticulous preparation as well as a willingness to change direction when the moment calls for it.  Most of all, it requires that teachers truly know each student.

Teachers who know the strengths and needs of their students use that knowledge to raise their success.  They put their students in learning situations where the rewards are high and the risk of failure is low.  They don’t try to manipulate the end-result, but they narrow the number of potential outcomes.

Here are six suggestions for how schools can increase student engagement:

  1. Develop an “engagement” culture

Like most significant initiatives, change starts with a school’s culture.  If you want to focus on student engagement then you’ll have to develop a collaborative vision with teachers and staff that celebrates the benefits of engaging instruction.  The collaborative approach lends itself to enduring change.  You don’t have to build consensus or “buy-in,” you need a commitment among the staff to grow strong instructional practices around the standards you are teaching.

  1. Have them teach each other.

See how high the level of engagement goes when students are told that they will be teaching a new concept to their classmates.  It’s not about the fear factor, but students certainly become more engaged in classrooms that include opportunities for them to teach each other.  Of course, it should be genuine, not contrived.  While this approach may take more time, it leads to greater retention of the material and deeper understanding of the concepts.  Students often listen with a greater focus when their peers speak.

  1. Assign authentic tasks with meaningful final projects.

Students are quickly motivated when their learning is related to topics they are passionate about.  In turn, passionate teachers can easily motivate their students by selecting lessons that focus on real-life problems and issues.  The final projects associated with problem-based learning should be meaningful.  The simplest question teachers should ask before determining the focus of an investigation is, “Who will we share what we’ve learned with and how will we do it?”  Great teachers share their passion for learning and pass it on to their students.

  1. Promote working together.

While it may be hard to know what careers we are preparing students for, we can assume that collaboration will be a key skill for their success.  Students need training in how to work with others.  It is not a natural talent.  Consistent structures and practices lead to collaboration that flows and seems natural.  Teachers can begin with highly controlled practices and, as students assume more independence, they can exercise a gradual release of responsibility.  Most importantly, teachers should expect some failure as they foster collaboration.  Through that failure, they will build student resilience and a deeper understanding of how the whole is often greater than its parts.

  1. Incorporate technology.

The modern teacher has many choices when it comes to using technology as a teaching tool.  Teachers must become comfortable with learning about technology alongside their students.  Blogging, file sharing, digital media, digital citizenship, project-based learning, Genius Hour, the maker movement, curation and many more terms have made their way into the current educational lexicon.  Technology allows schools to connect their students with others across the globe.  Small school districts can provide opportunities that their students might not otherwise have.  Start investigating the newest technology.  If you don’t, you can bet your students will.

6. Get students moving.

Students should be sitting as little as possible during the school day.  If your students aren’t moving every fifteen minutes, they probably aren’t learning as much as you want them to.  Brain-based research has clearly linked the role of movement in learning.  Where does the blood pool when you’re sitting for long stretches of time?  You can bet it’s not in the brain.  Movement breaks and physical activity re-awaken the brain’s synapses and make students available for new learning.

Once engagement becomes part of a school’s culture, it needs nurturing to sustain its benefits.  School principals can develop look-fors based on the specific needs of their students and staff.  The challenge for observers is to distinguish between student activity and student engagement.  Robert Marzano is recognized as an expert in student engagement.  His book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, is a good starting point for school leaders seeking to foster student engagement.  Marzano offers several tips that provide a good foundation for assessing engagement in schools.  Based on his tips, school principals should look for evidence of:

  • the quality of relationships in the classroom
  • a variety of teaching methods being utilized
  • the level and source of questions asked (teacher and student generated)
  • student choice
  • acceptance (teacher to student; student to student)
  • effective pacing
  • the use of wait time
  • positive and respectful communication (verbal and non-verbal

While this is not an exhaustive list, it’s a good starting point for schools focused on improving student engagement.  If one of the tenets of ESSA is to personalize learning for students, then targeting student engagement may be the vehicle to success.  By maintaining high expectations for all students and offering rigorous, engaging instruction, we can at least get children more excited about coming to school.  That’s a good start!

This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Principal magazine.  All rights reserved.

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