Student Engagement

To Help Students Learn, Appeal to What They Value

January 15, 2014
Image credit: iStockphto

A Hunger for Recognition

Greg was among my toughest students in a tough year of teaching high school. Physically he attended class, but academically he was missing. He was a freshman invested in his image with older students he deemed cool, and academic achievement was not a group value. He was disruptive and disengaged. But Greg began to care about school the day that study hall rules changed and he could not leave the classroom -- not even to buy snacks. He quickly became hungry and morose, and, already the enemy, I was doubly so for enforcing the rule. Before me was a hungry boy, so I emptied my briefcase of every snack I had: a soft apple, a Power Bar, Dum Dums. I put these in a pile on his desk and said that was what I had.

His face smoothed in surprise. He sat up a little and opened a notebook. The next day he brightly offered to replace the bumper on the old truck I drove.

The start of Greg's visible respect for school was simultaneous with my visible respect for him as he wanted to be seen: wild, misunderstood and in need.

To know why it is important to understand what students value, I encourage everyone to reflect on how they feel -- and perform -- when a school leader knows and acts on what is important to team members.

Now think about when a leader ignores or disrespects team and individual values. How does it affect performance?

I have learned this: discovering and appealing to what students value has the power of a "return on investment" of their eagerly engaging in and owning their learning. And that is the pedagogical gold ring.

Getting Inside Their Heads

Following are practices for uncovering student values. Each may be used alone. However, they yield more accurate information when applied as a set throughout a school year or term.

1. Ask in Writing

This shows students, from day one, that you care who they are and what they value. I have asked the following of multiple groups, from fifth graders to college sophomores:

  1. Describe your last [science/math/English] class.
  2. What did you like best about the class?
  3. What made the best class you have ever taken the best?
  4. What made the worst class the worst?
  5. What do you do when you are not in school?
  6. What is important to you?
  7. What do you expect of me, the teacher?
  8. What would you like me to know about you that I haven't asked?

For questions 3 and 4, students have one answer. Can you guess what it is?

"The teacher."

Closely read students' answers on what made a teacher the best or worst, rendering a class the best or worst experience. Ever.

2. Have a Conversation with Each Student

A one-on-one conversation can have significant results -- it humanizes you, and it provides insight on where students are emotionally. Prepare only a few questions, with the goal of gaining in-depth answers. Here are examples:

  • How is class going for you?
  • What do you enjoy about class?
  • If you could change anything, what would it be?

Listen and record the responses. Remember, when you request feedback, be willing to hear the answer. Be a compassionate observer of what you see, as well as what you hear.

Scheduling the conversations before a project or exam gives students an opportunity to ask questions they might not otherwise pose.

3. Remember When

I design and teach STEAM curricula to appeal to girls, and the fourth and fifth graders with whom I am lucky to work can keenly demonstrate Newton's Third Law of Motion. They will tell you how to save yourself should you ever be free-floating in outer space.

They easily grasp this cornerstone of physics, a lesson many others do not encounter until senior year, because I frame the learning with three things important to most tween girls:

  1. Horses
  2. Clothes
  3. Their latest crush

Dealing with a Crush is vital to girls, as it was in the dark old 1970s of my preteen years. I obsessed about boys, so now, to help explain that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," I relate force to the effect of capturing a boy's interest by ignoring or walking away from him. His interest in a girl will be equal in force, I explain, to her deflecting his request to meet at a dance or lunch. "For every action" (the girl exerting force by walking away from the boy she likes) "there is an equal” (the boy likes her, too) “and opposite reaction" (he moves toward her to further the relationship). As with boy and girl, forces always come in pairs.

Frame your physics lesson in terms of how a girl can successfully handle her tween crush -- valuable when you are 11, 12 and 13 -- and the learning soars.

The nonacademic passions, social intrigues and fads we would dismiss are among the things students value and, ironically, are a springboard for learning. What are your ideas for uncovering and working with students' values? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Interest-Based Learning
  • Student Voice
  • Teaching Strategies

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