Engagement. The magic word. I’ve conducted countless Instructional Rounds, learning walks and other observations focused on engagement. Are kids engaged? It’s a great question. It’s really THE question. And, unfortunately, all too often the answer is no.
Why? Part of it is the sense that stuff is happening TO them—and much of it is a surprise. Many of us advocate for greater student agency—voice and choice over their learning. But first, we’ve need to provide a roadmap.
As educators, we often have the benefit of some curricula to guide us. So, we know what we are teaching, how we want to teach and where we want our students to end up.
Often, though, students are left in the dark. They show up with some vague idea of what they are learning. When asked, they answer with the subject—math- or maybe even the topic (fractions) or the text (The Great Gatsby) but not much beyond that. And we wonder why they are not more engaged, more present, more excited.
Getting kids to be cognitively engaged depends on a lot of factors and lots of hard and great work by teachers.
To start, though, they …and we should be able to answer the following 5 questions. (Templates are at the bottom of this post)
Here are 5 questions that students should be able to answer:
- What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
- How will I show what I’ve learned?
- How will we learn?
- What do I do when I struggle?
- Why am I learning this?*
These questions will be familiar to those who have relied on the work of Dufour, et al, on building professional learning communities and those who have engaged in a backwards design curriculum process like Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.
1) What will I know and be able to do at the end of this year?
Include your content standards—but not all of them. If your district/school has identified power standards, use those. If not, you determine what’s most important and let them know that’s the focus.
Also, include those life and learning skills that they will gain. You might want to guarantee greater collaboration or problem-solving skills, for example.
2) How will I show what I’ve learned?
What are some examples of formative and summative assessments? Does the teacher assess HW? Is there a lot of writing? Is there a major project at the end of the course or each quarter? Will there be an exhibition of learning?
A grading policy is helpful here as well. (I’ve got lots of thoughts on what that can and should look like, but the important thing is that students understand the practices up front.)
If you allow retakes and redos, a clear explanation of how that’s done and the impact on grades is useful.
3) How will we learn?
What are the usual activities? Do we take a lot of notes? Will we participate in socratic seminar? Are we expected to explore via cooperative lab work?
What skills are needed/will be developed? Are we expected to read, speak, explain, draw, act, sing?
Here, I would give students an opportunity to reflect on their level of comfort with each of these and some strategies to ask for and receive help. For example, the painfully shy student or one with a speech impairment might dread public speaking. Knowing it’s expected and how they will be supported allows students and teacher to be proactive.
4) What do I do when I struggle?
This is a great time to reinforce a growth mindset. Let them know and discuss how anything worth doing can sometimes be difficult but that we are all in this together.
This is also where kids need some specifics about their access to additional help. How and when can they meet with you one on one? Do you take email questions? Are they assigned a partner to work with first?
You can keep coming back to this by asking students to reflect regularly on where they got stumped and what they did —or continue to do—to make their way forward. Of course, a grading system that doesn’t punish kids for not “getting it right away” or indeed a PBL system that is built on struggle is helpful here, but even in the most traditional environments, this can be useful.
5) Why am I learning this?*
Arguably, this should come first, But I recommend that you explore this together through the school year. Students can self-assess on this as a part of reflections after summative or formative assessments. This can be a homework assignment once a quarter or every few weeks—ask parents, grandparents, Google, etc—Why should I learn this? What can I do with this now? What will I do with this in the future? How does this tie into what I already know or what I am learning in other areas of school or life?
Come back to this often—weekly, quarterly, at the beginning and end of discrete units of study. The more students know about the what, why and how of the lean ringing, the more they can invest of themselves in the learning.
Here’s a course overview template teachers can use for their own course planning.
Here’s a template to use with students and families.
Please let me know if this is useful and/or how the templates can be improved.
Wishing you a great year of deep and joyful learning!