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Student Engagement

3 Engagement Strategies Teachers Can Borrow From Park Rangers

Park rangers use effective instructional techniques to capture their audience’s attention that can also work seamlessly in your classroom.

April 17, 2024
Ryan McVay / Getty Images

Engagement is a key ingredient in the recipe of learner success. If you’re a teacher, it’s the difference between building student skills and knowledge and having to go back and explain everything again. Engagement is just as important for educators who work outside of the classroom, like national park rangers, because keeping visitors involved in a learning experience that is noncompulsory is no small feat. 

Absent incentives like grades and attendance, park rangers have developed creative and effective means of keeping their audiences engaged, and many of these strategies can be just as effective in a traditional classroom as they are among the giant sequoias or thermal vents.

In honor of National Park Week, here are three unique engagement strategies to try in your classroom that come directly from “America’s Best Idea.” 

1. Story-Why-Action

The primary method of instruction used by park rangers is one that’s as old as human civilization itself—storytelling. Many park rangers are master storytellers, weaving informative and humorous narratives about the landscapes or events that led to the creation of our most beloved parks. 

Ranger programs are more than just story time; they’re designed to elicit action or further learning on the part of the participants through the use of a very specific framework. Rangers generally follow up their stories with an explanation of why they matter by connecting them to larger universal themes or familiar experiences that create an authentic real-world connection for their audience. The information shared in the stories is important because it directly connects to an interest or some part of their lives.

Then the program concludes with a call to action, an invitation for people to take their newfound knowledge and do something with it. This might involve looking at a park resource to learn more, asking follow-up questions, or a commitment to conservation.   

Teach Like a Ranger Tips

  • Follow this structure by providing information, helping students contextualize the “why” through authentic or real-world examples. Then, facilitate some sort of self–directed activity or inquiry where the information shared is an essential part of developing understanding.
  • Provide thinking structures and protocols (turn-and-talks, chalk talks, or Socratic discussions) to allow learners to discover the implications of what they might do with their learning.

2. Green-Yellow-Red

Participation on the part of the audience is something that all rangers strive to get, but it isn’t always guaranteed—especially if the focus of the program is on an unfamiliar topic or one that is potentially controversial. In my soon-to-be-released book that discusses how teachers and their students can benefit from the resources and strategies used in our national parks, I share the story of a park ranger who was conducting a program on slavery at the site of a notorious plantation house. The visitors in the group were reluctant to participate, given the loaded nature of the topic and likely for hidden personal reasons, but by the end of the program, a productive dialogue had emerged.  

As a way of scaffolding participation, rangers like the one described above use a method that encourages participation by gradually raising question complexity. In this method, fashioned like a stoplight, rangers begin with “green light” questions, ones that are simple for anybody to answer and don’t require a lot of background knowledge.

After enough of these have been asked, the rangers gradually increase the complexity of the questions to “yellow light” questions, where sharing opinions or offering possible answers on lesser-known subjects makes them feel more risky. After enough of these have been asked and a culture of sharing has taken root, the ranger can then move to “red light” questions. These questions might require the sharing of personal stories or investing time in tasks like a complex scavenger hunt or long, intensive hike.  

Many aspects of the classroom revolve around establishing a culture or habits of participation that eventually enable discussion of complex questions or the completion of difficult tasks, and ramping up to these “red light” tasks is something that should be done gradually and strategically. 

Teach Like a Ranger Tips

  • Encourage your learners’ resilience by beginning your class with “green light” tasks such as easy-to-answer review questions, warm-up tasks, or games with simple instructions. This will get them participating early on and create momentum that you can build on. 
  • Don’t make your “red light” tasks until you’ve seen success with less rigorous questions and tasks. Provide an on-ramp to more challenging endeavors when you can. 

3. Audience Involvement

A pitfall that many educators experience is an overreliance on one-way communication. I’ve attended park ranger programs where the instructional focus is on lengthy lectures, and on the same day, I’ve also seen other rangers who design their programs with an emphasis on strategies and techniques that promote their learners’ involvement. I don’t think I need to tell you who had more people at the conclusion of their program. When the learner is the focus and an equal partner in active learning, they stay involved and engaged for longer. 

Open-ended questions, sharing realia, or dressing someone up in period clothing all help take the emphasis off the presenter and put it on the people in the audience, adding to their engagement and receptivity to the content. 

Teach Like a Ranger Tips

  • While designing your lessons, always ask yourself, “Can my students be involved in this?” and try to find ways of including them. Can they demo something for you? Can they model a protocol for their classmates? 
  • Balance where input comes from. If you spend 15 minutes providing background information to your learners, find a place to provide at least 15 minutes for learner-centered activities or processes.

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