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Five key strategies to get/keep kids engaged at school

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By Larry Ferlazzo

What does student engagement look like?

I have received this question from teachers in a number of different forms. Often the words “apathetic” or “unmotivated” are used in place of “disengaged.” But the point is the same. Many of us have had students in the classroom whose stubborn lack of interest or motivation threatens to undermine the positive learning environment we’ve tried to create. How do we turn this around?

I’d suggest that a first step in that direction is leading with our “ears” instead of our “mouths.”  The French root of the word “engage” means “to make a pledge.”  Perhaps we could make a pledge to listen to the interests, hopes, and dreams of our students and work at figuring out ways to make our lessons relevant to them. After all, everybody is interested in something—it just might not be exactly what we want them to be interested in. In many cases, we need to build some bridges to help get them there.

Let’s start with some basics. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have identified student engagement as having three equally important components:

Behavioral engagement: Are students getting their work done on time, are they participating in class discussions, do they follow school rules?

Emotional engagement: Are students feeling excited about being in class, are they genuinely interested in the lessons?

Cognitive engagement: Are they actively trying to apply the knowledge they learn in one class to other classes and to life outside of school, and are they using metacognitive strategies?

What teacher doesn’t want to see these qualities present in their classroom?

Yet it appears from research done by the National Research Council and others (not to mention the observations by countless teachers) that academic engagement generally plateaus for many students when they enter middle school and go downhill from there. And not only does lack of engagement signal trouble for life in the classroom; some research suggests it can also be an indicator of challenges later in life.

Now that we have reviewed its importance, let’s explore some ideas on how to engage, and re-engage, our students.

In an effort to better engage students , my colleague Katie Hull-Sypnieski and I recently identified what we call the “The Five-by-Five Approach to Differentiation Success.” To explain this approach we often begin with an anecdote:

Two 9th grade boys kept falling asleep while reading in our class. “If you’re sleepy,” we told them, “you could ask for a hall pass to get a quick drink of water, stand in the back of the room and read, or sit on the desk behind you as long as you are reading.” They perked up at the chance to sit on the desks and were soon engrossed in their books.

Obviously, not every attempt at differentiation goes so smoothly, but it does convey the idea of being flexible while keeping your “eyes on the prize” of learning.

A few of the strategies we employ in moving forward to this goal include:

1) Assessing: At the start of the year (and, in fact, throughout the entire year), we want to find out more about where our students’ skills are, a process that informs our differentiation approach. Instructional expert Robert Marzano has called formative assessment “one of the more powerful weapons in a teacher’s arsenal.” The “assessment” comes from the Latin “assidere,” which means “to sit beside.” This origin is reflected in the process of formative assessment, as teachers work alongside students, evaluating evidence and making adjustments to teaching and learning.

2) Keeping students moving forward: This priority drives everything we do with students—even small moves like inviting sleepy readers to sit on top of desks. Studies of “The Progress Principle,” which Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write about in their book of that title, have found that a key to intrinsic motivation is feeling that you are making progress in meaningful work. We can reinforce intrinsic motivation by emphasizing small wins.

3) Differentiating assignments: Students can complete the same types of mental tasks while producing different end products. The idea is that students can gain proficiency even when completing different types of assignments or a different number of assignments (one big project vs. five smaller assignments). This happens in our classrooms during free reading time, when students practice using similar reading strategies while reading different books. We have some students reading 300-page books while others read a series of much shorter texts. As long as the level of text is challenging and students are using reading strategies to increase comprehension and drive analysis, then the length/genre/topic of the book doesn’t need to be uniform.

4) Praising effort and learning from mistakes: One way to encourage all students to work at their highest level of productivity and intellectual capacity is to praise effort and not intelligence. Carol Dweck has published research on the benefits of this approach. She recommends teaching children the difference between a “growth mindset” (the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort and practice) and a “fixed mindset” (the belief that intelligence is innate). One way to develop students’ “growth mindset” is to encourage them to risk making (and learning from) mistakes. Some students are afraid of making mistakes and being ridiculed for it. We want to turn that attitude on its head, helping them learn that, as Dweck says, we should instead “celebrate mistakes.”

5) Using flexible grouping: Some confuse differentiation with the practice of grouping students by ability levels and teaching those small groups. While this is sometimes necessary and valuable, it is also important that students have the opportunity to participate in interest-based groups, mixed-ability groups, student-choice groups, and other variations. As differentiated-instruction expert Carol Ann Tomlinson has explained, “In a sense, the teacher is continually auditioning kids in different settings—and the students get to see how they can contribute in a variety of contexts.”

Keeping these strategies in mind can help our students  (and us!) moving in the right direction — Forward!