Finding Your Way to Student Engagement
Isn’t it frustrating trying to unlock a door in the dark? You can’t see anything but you know the door is in front of you. You can easily figure out where the knob is but that’s the easy part. Your first problem is finding the right key. Unless you have some type of rubber casing on the head of the key, distinguishing the correct one will be a challenge. Assuming you can find the correct key, you then need to use the right orientation. Do the teeth face up or face down when inserting the key into the lock?
If this is a door you’ve opened hundreds of times, the above steps aren’t too difficult. That doesn’t help you with the lack of light, however. You can still spend 30 seconds or more groping around in the dark, trying to fit the key into the lock. No matter easy it might be, the darkness turns a simple process into an endeavor. If only you could see both parts (key and lock), you would have no problem performing this simple task effortlessly.
Unfortunately, there is not a direct relationship between energy output and learning. Teachers cannot manufacture understanding by exerting a certain amount of effort. Much like trying to unlock a door in the dark, trying harder won’t get the door open. The key (pun intended) to both situations is illumination. By seeing how all the pieces fit together, teachers can much more easily increase student engagement. Instead, most spend their time in the dark, trying really hard and hoping something will eventually work.
Teachers, have you ever had this happen to you? You plan for hours the previous night to create a dynamite lesson. You look on Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers, or even create something yourself. Excitement fills your voice as class begins and you launch into the lesson that is sure to make you Teacher of the Year. And all you get are yawns and stares. What seemed amazingly awesome to you only gets half-hearted compliance from a handful of students.
The problem here lies in the fact that only one part of student engagement was addressed. Just because a teacher wants students to do something doesn’t mean they’ll want to participate. To bring students willfully into the learning conversation, instruction needs to designed purposefully. Rather than fumbling around in the dark, then, teachers would be wise to keep student motivation in mind. Engagement occurs when those two components meet successfully.
Let’s assume for a moment that teachers are aware of what makes a good lesson. They understand all the components of the lesson cycle (e.g., 5E model) and can generally recognize what makes instruction strong. Student motivation, then, needs to be brought into the light as the missing component. What is it that students want? What makes them tick? Why do some students readily connect with a teacher while others seem as if they exist in an alternate universe? How come some love quizzes while others only want to work in groups? Why are some control-freaks while others only care about topics they deem valuable (e.g., movies, pop culture, video games)?
When a student is driven by a facet which is not supported, engagement is hard to come by. Students who desire competence will shut down if the instruction outpaces them and they feel stupid. Those who are motivated by relationships are overly sensitive to distant teachers or hostile peer environments. Students who thrive under autonomy will rebel in a controlling classroom. Likewise, those who find no value or relevance in the work will disengage. Tying them all together, negative emotions can derail learning before it has a chance to start.