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Volume VIII Issue V

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Engaging Experiences

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


There is probably no more important factor that can impact learning than student engagement – or the lack of it. If students are not attentive and involved, learning will not happen. Teachers sometimes are frustrated when their students are not tuned in to the planned learning activities. In his analysis of how to re-engage his students, high school English teacher Andrew Marcinek shared his observation: “Last week I observed a tired classroom. My English class looked bored and uninterested in the discussion we were having. I observed one student intently working on a crossword puzzle. He was engaged. Another student was sneaking a peek at her mobile device every so often and then quickly looked back in my direction. She was almost engaged. Some students were simply staring at me so intently that I assumed they had painted eyes on the exterior of their eyelids.”  Mr. Marcinek’s honest appraisal of his students led him to re-evaluate his expectations for student learning. His revised expectations, as presented in an Edutopia blog, included the following ideas: learn beyond the walls, collaborate, engage others, share, deconstruct an issue transparently, establish a class wiki to facilitate learning, make many mistakes along the way, and have fun. As Mr. Marcinek succinctly concluded, “I wanted them to not only write about this world, but also engage with it.”

A veteran high school math teacher, Tristan de Frondeville, summed up his feelings by saying, “When 90 to 100 percent of my students are excitedly engaged in their tasks and ask deep and interesting questions, I experience joy, and joy is a lot less tiring than the frustration that comes with student apathy.” 

Mr. Marcinek and Mr. de Frondeville are like many educators today who are searching for ways to make sure their students are active participants and not passive onlookers who are logging seat time. With so many competing interests outside the classroom, it is important for teachers to not play the blame game and look for the bogeyman that is making life harder or to beat themselves up if their students appear to be inattentive. It is also imprudent to abandon current practices that have proven to be successful for decades. Instead, teachers can re-examine their thinking, seek to discover successes that other educators are experiencing, and add some fresh ideas to their existing repertoires.

As all educators know, not all ideas will work and not all students will respond to our best thinking and our most sincere efforts to create a learning-centered environment. But as professionals, it is our duty and responsibility to be tenacious, to persevere, and to follow the advice of Albert Einstein who said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the condition in which they can learn.” When teachers discover new ideas and approaches that result in achieving 90 to 100 percent student engagement, perhaps they too will experience the joy that Mr. de Frondeville felt because they captured their students’ attention, kept them genuinely involved throughout the lesson, and students left the class fulfilled from having participated in an exciting learning experience.

One way to determine how to gain and maintain the focus of your students is to self-assess your current practices, determine what is working, and make a plan to add new and different approaches and ways of thinking that could have the impact you are seeking. This attachment presents a series of questions organized in categories, each of which can have an impact on student engagement in learning experiences. As you read and respond to each question, write in the space provided an F if it is a practice you frequently include in your instructional design and delivery, an S if you follow the practice sometimes, or an N if it is a new idea you do not yet include in your practice. After completing the self-assessment, consider which of the practices you marked with an S or an N might have the most impact on learning if they were regular and purposeful components of your teaching repertoire.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Engaging Experiences” Just for the ASKing! May 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons

“These questions can be used to promote thinking about teaching and learning during the planning process, while teaching, and again when reflecting on the impact of the lesson either alone or with a mentor or supervisor.”

Top Ten Questions