George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Think about the level of cognitive engagement that occurs with each activity in this list:

  • Watching/listening
  • Notetaking
  • Notemaking
  • Discussing
  • Summarizing

The learning style of your students plays a key role with things like "watching/listening." For example, I realize as I get older that I am definitely a visual learner. I often can't remember a name until I see it in print. So, it would not benefit me as much to be in an environment where most learning occurs through listening.

Teacher-led instruction and discussion have a place in the classroom. But if students are only listening to their teacher present without having something that they must also be doing, how much cognitive demand or even memory retention is taking place?

Here's a personal example of how learning can benefit from this cognitive demand. After my wife and I see a movie, we have our debriefing, a conversation that's always interesting because each often sees things the other person didn't see. We analyze and evaluate what we saw right away. If one of us wasn't sure why something occurred, the other will often give clarification. After these conversations, we gain new insight into the movie we both just experienced. If I had watched the movie alone or had no discussion, I would have gained far less than I did from watching it with her.

Imagine the power of this exchange of ideas with students in your classroom. Yes, they can hear what is being told to them. But the real learning comes through interaction with their newly acquired knowledge.

The Down Side of Down Time

As teachers, we lead classrooms filled with learners of all styles. It is imperative that we use methods that will engage students at all times. When we don’t, the result is a student sitting there not learning -- in essence, doing nothing.

The rule of thumb is simple. As you plan your lesson, think: no down time. At all times, all students must be doing something significant toward the instructional goal, even during any full group discussions.

Here are some instances where down time happens:

  • The teacher is asking specific "popcorn" type questions of one student at a time in a whole-group setting -- what are the other students doing?
  • Students are at the board working a problem or writing an answer -- what are the other students doing?
  • The teacher is introducing a new topic, method or concept of which students may not have much prior knowledge -- are all students equally engaged?

Strategies for Engagement

How can you ensure that all students are engaged during whole-group discussions?

  • Evaluation: Have students assess before and after an individual response. Before the response, you might prompt them with "Who thinks they know the answer?" or "Alright, listen closely and see if you agree." After the response, you could ask, "Is that correct?" or "Do you agree?"
  • Questioning: Keep them thinking, inquiring and wondering.
  • Surveying: As opposed to asking one student, ask everyone the same question. This may require more of a multiple-choice method: "Which one do you believe is correct? Why?"
  • Individual white boards: Again, as opposed to asking one person, ask everyone to write and display an answer. This is a great way to ensure everyone is thinking about the topic; it's also great formative assessment.
  • Call and response: Having students repeat, chant, sing or choral read is a high-energy way to engage everyone.
  • Find a core: Build a lesson or presentation around a problem, issue or situation that's likely to engage all students.
  • Peer discussion: Rather than asking one student a question, have students discuss the problem, issue or situation while you monitor the accuracy of their discussion.
  • Building schema: How can real life be applied to this discussion? What connections can be made? Have students discuss this as a class or with a partner.
  • Guided lessons or scavenger hunts: Have students look for or find certain pieces of information in order to synthesize meaning at the end. This could be as simple as fill-in-the-blanks notes, guided questions throughout the lesson, or actual built-in clues that kids have to figure out to construct meaning.
  • Notemaking: Give students the opportunity to synthesize their thoughts in a meaningful way to build understanding. Use a graphic organizer to help them put thoughts together and build meaning as new information is presented. (This method requires a lot of upfront teaching and modeling.)
  • Divide and conquer: Assigning students to small groups or stations can help eliminate idle time, as any quick mini-lesson would be focused in a small-group setting while others are doing meaningful tasks.
  • Eliminate whole-group discussions: Before entering into such an experience, ask yourself if there's a better way for students to use an inductive or more inquiry-based experience to gain the same knowledge in a more meaningful way.

Making It Stick

It is imperative that students are interacting with new learning. If we really want new learning to "stick," students must be doing. Real learning is not a spectator sport.

The work of education is difficult, but we must try to keep students cognitively engaged. It begins with gaining and keeping their attention and interest. Once we have that attention and interest, what we do with it will make the difference with reaching our instructional goals.

Are there other ideas you use to keep your students engaged? Please share them in the comments space below.

Was this useful?

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Wendy Levy's picture

Thanks for this terrific piece - I resonate with everything here. The inquiry-based learning experience you discuss opens the door for students to turn static information into opportunities for real collaboration and the development of a personal creative practice & point of view. Your ideas bring storytelling and design thinking into the core framework of any activity. It's as if we utilized these principles in the development of - an interactive data/storytelling site for young people to engage with technology and storytelling for social good. We just received a MacArthur grant which will enable us to fully launch the platform soon - and I intend to quote from your article heavily in our next round of grant proposals! Thanks again.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Came across a conversation on Twitter about this blog and one teacher added that most of the suggestions in this blog can easily be "techified" using padlet, edmodo, educreations, and other edtech apps.

Thought it was good example of how to integrate tech thoughtfully into these activities.

Kendell Dorsey's picture
Kendell Dorsey
Principal at Winton Woods Elementary School in Cincinnati, OH

Thank you both! Great points from both of you. There are so many ways that we can begin to strengthen our understanding through social media and technology as we are doing now! Best wishes. Thanks for reading.

Kendell Dorsey's picture
Kendell Dorsey
Principal at Winton Woods Elementary School in Cincinnati, OH

Elana, was the conversation through a particular hashtag? I'd love to participate. I am @teachchrstn.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Hi Kendall,

I just made sure to follow you from my twitter account and edutopia's twitter account. The conversation did have a hashtag - It was #techedheads - it's a weekly chat. Here's a link to the main twitter account to follow for times:

And here's a link to the specific conversation:

Hope this helps and see you on Twitter!

Rachel Barnes's picture

I hear your strategies of engagement being used every morning in my building on the announcements. North in the house...hoot hoot.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.