The opening months of school are a time of optimism and new beginnings. Each school year's start rejuvenates educators and students. Yet these feelings can quickly turn sour if we do not encourage students to find meaning in what we ask them to do. There are ways to engage learners into lessons and units. Here are three practices that, when incorporated by teachers, offer entry points for students to invest in their learning.
Practice One: Be Real
Communicating authentic purpose to students is critical if we want their attention. Beyond the school walls, there is much that captures peoples' notice -- games, social media, entertainment, events, and friends. All of these often out-match the potential value of school curriculum. Keeping learning real requires three easy steps:
1. Connect skills and concepts to students' interests.
Curriculum is often taught as non-concrete concepts that are steeped in academic abstractions (just like this sentence). Learning happens when we connect concepts with practical applications, such as the effects of centripetal force from a tight turn on a skateboard, bike, or car. Understanding also happens through reflection on and revision of creative writing, or prototypes that demonstrate the targeted skills and concepts.
2. Engage students in professional dialogue with experts in the field.
Parents, friends, and colleagues either have expertise or know "the right people" who can talk with (not to) your students. Professional dialogue is authentic practice that provides context for the subject-based skills. Often, a guest will say something that the teacher has already said many times, yet now the students embrace the idea because it came from that outside person. Professional dialogue is not the guest talking at the learners. Instead, the conversation is a give-and-take. Students recognize when they are included as contributors.
3. Challenge students to solve a problem, design for a need, or explore their own questions.
Give students real-world challenges to solve. The experiences may be a single activity, a collection of lessons, or an entire unit. Discovery in science, math, games, and other areas happens through trial and error. Opportunities to apply concepts in practical ways are important to learning. Reflecting on successes and mistakes is where growth occurs, sparking new ideas and innovations. The process takes time in the short term, but if sustained learning is key, then the long journey to the destination outcomes is worth the effort. Otherwise, students see the work as a checklist to be completed and forgotten.
Practice Two: Launch Events That Matter
Relevance matters. As in the professional arena, students need to know why the content is worth taking the trip to accomplish the tasks. When starting a unit, launching an event can help students make an emotional connection to the major themes and concepts to be explored. Some examples include:
Show The Sneeze. The dialogue after watching this Australian public service video can raise interest in the study of germs and infectious diseases.
As an invisible theater exercise, the Teaching Channel's Making the Declaration of Independence Come Alive can help students recognize the value of historical events and ideas by making personal or contemporary connections. (Spoiler alert: students make the analogy of the Declaration of Independence to a break-up letter.)
Invite someone to ask your students for help on some real-world task. A travel agent needs persuasive media on regional travel sites (geography), or an organization director needs an awareness campaign about cancer to raise donations. Many guest opportunities can be found in your own networks. Three Degrees of Connection is a professional development activity for staff to identify experts among their networks. The future guest may be someone that you or a colleague knows.
Practice Three: Keep the End in Mind
Driving in heavy rain or a snowstorm is especially difficult behind a semi truck. The spray sweeps up a wall of mist that limits vision of what's beyond. Yet if we get past the truck, our vision of the road is clearer. Students need a clear view of the roadmap that they're expected to follow. Inform them of the outcomes for each lesson and unit at the beginning, making sure that they understand what you intend to teach them. Essential Questions (as discussed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe) and driving questions are like road signs, providing reminders of how the current content connects to the final destination. Key assessments for learning, like exit cards, revision work, and journal entries, are mile markers that we use to let students know their progress and distance left to travel.
If You Engage Learners, They Will Take Over
Each new school year is a crossroads of many travel options. Students drive their learning when we share the maps, empowering them to chart their way to the various unit destinations. Provide them a clear view to a purposeful outcome that has meaning to them, and they will want the wheel. They will invest the time and practice needed to become confident drivers. When they want control, our best option is to give them the keys. There's always the extra set of brakes available to us -- but we should tap them only when needed.