Student Engagement

“In my methods courses I learned what I should be doing,

but they never taught me how to do it.”

New Teacher Trainee

Focus on Classroom Management

Everybody is talking about student engagement – the new frontrunner in the buzzword sweepstakes. But how do you make it happen? With high-stakes testing, this is no longer just the teachers’ problem. It is the administrators’ problem as well.

To create student engagement, the teacher must succeed in managing both discipline and instruction. If the kids are goofing off, you certainly won’t get much engagement.

Tools for Teaching supplies the “how to” of classroom management – discipline, instruction and motivation. These management skills create the foundation for building student engagement. Here are some specifics as food for thought.

In One Ear and Out the Other

Have you ever introduced yourself to someone only to have that person’s name slip your mind before the end of the conversation? Welcome to your brain. That’s how it works. We have very little long-term memory in the auditory modality.

Now let’s apply that simple reality to education. What is the primary modality used for instruction in every subject area at every grade level? Whoops! We have a problem.

At the secondary level we have lectures. But even in third grade teachers’ presentations often run ten minutes or more. Too much talking. Too much sitting. Not enough doing.

Learning by Doing

Step one: Reduce the amount of “stuff” you give kids before asking them to do something with it.

Step two: Have the kids do something with it immediately before they have time to forget.

Successful instruction has a lot to do with packaging. There are only two ways to package student activity during a lesson. The first is the one we grew up with.

Input, Input, Input, Input – Output

The second is the one that characterizes learning by doing.

Input, Output, Input, Output, Input, Output

Learning by doing focuses on performance. The teaching of performance is usually referred to as coaching.

You explain what to do next. You model what to do next. Then you have the student(s) do that step while you watch like a hawk. If there is error, you fix it immediately before it becomes a bad habit. You may repeat that step a few times to iron out the kinks. Then, when you are satisfied with performance, you proceed to the next step.

If lessons are packaged in this fashion, problems of cognitive overload and forgetting are nearly eliminated while student engagement is maximized. In addition, assessment is continuous, not something that is separated from performance and delayed until its relevance is lost.

Learned Helplessness

When lessons are packaged in the traditional fashion, the most predictable by-product is cognitive overload accompanied by anxiety. As soon as the teacher asks the students to “work independently,” hands go up.

The teacher goes to the first student and asks, “What part don’t you understand?” The student responds, “All of it.”

As the teacher works with the student, the noise spreads. Finally it gets loud.

“Class! There is all together too much talking in here!

When I look up I expect to see… blah, blah, blah.”

Welcome to student disengagement. As the class period progresses, the teacher nags the group intermittently while tutoring 5-6 students – the same ones every day. All of the teacher’s contact time, therefore, reinforces helplessness which leads to chronic helpless handraising instead of independent learning.

Get Into Your Groups

To sidestep this disaster, educators have embraced group learning wholesale. Often referred to as cooperative learning, very little of it resembles cooperative learning at all.

Rather than funding the weeks of teacher training required to master cooperative learning, most districts simply sponsor a one-day workshop and tell the teachers to “do it.” You could have predicted the resulting “group dynamics” when you were in sixth grade.

Outcome one: Put the kids together, and all they do is talk.

Outcome two: Put the kids together, and one kid does all of the work while the others coast.

Mastery and Independent Learning

Repackaging instruction is only the beginning of creating mastery and independent learning on the part of the students. In teaching a lesson successfully, discipline and instruction are woven together into a seamless whole. Briefly, when the lesson is packaged as – Input, Output, Input, Output, Input, Output – most of the time in any input/output cycle is spent with output.

During that time the teacher can suppress disruptions by “working the crowd” as they “check for understanding.” Typically, therefore, three-quarters of the teacher’s time is spent in work check and feedback while three-quarters of the students’ time is spent in “doing.”

When corrective feedback is given, it can be a brief prompt related to the prior input rather than a lengthy trouble-shooting session. To increase teacher mobility even further, lessons can be “prepackaged” in the form of a Visual Instructional Plan – a visual “set of plans” for the performance embodied in the lesson that students can refer to at will.

This thumbnail sketch of a small portion of the discipline-instruction interface gives a sense of the specificity with which Tools for Teaching addresses primary prevention. Next comes “meaning business” and training the students to be responsible – critical elements of secondary prevention that occur in days 2 and 3 of the workshop.

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