Talking Engagement with Edspiration

This week, I was interviewed on John Linney's Edspiration podcast about a post that he read on this blog Everything Your Brain Needs to Know about How to Engage Students. Here are the highlights from that 30-minute interview. 

1. What is a favorite quote that inspires you? Why?

I customized one of those tacky silicone wristbands with a quotation from the late John Cheever. It says: “Now is the time when kings in golden mail ride elephants across the mountains.” It speaks to the fact that we might live these pedestrian lives, with sore feet, and coffee breath, and eyes tired from grading papers, but underneath our plain exterior, our inner life is full of archetypal greatness. The takeaway is that as teachers, we need to access our own inner enchantment and model for students how to access their potential for greatness.” Also, the most powerful thing we can say to students is, “I see greatness in you.”

2. What prompted your interest in student engagement?

I became interested in the subject of student engagement and disengagement in 2013 when a Gallup Poll said that 8/10 early elementary students are engaged in school, but only a measly 4/10 high school students are engaged. So I conducted, along with my colleague Shari Steadman, a year long study of education major’s understanding of engagement, and we discovered that most of new teachers conflate engagement with compliance. I was also motivated to understand the subject better because of my own high school experience. When I was in high school, I learned to slightly squint my eyes and pretend I was listening to teachers lecture and then disassociate for 7 hours a day. It turns out that looking like you are engaged is not the same thing as actually being engagement. Finally, as a teacher and then an education professor over the last 25 years, I’ve noticed that the whole enterprise of class time crackles with intellectual electricity when students are leaning forward, rather than when they’re leaning backwards with their arms folded. Understanding the how and the why of student engagement is critical to every aspect of education.

3. What impact does student engagement have?

Without engagement there is no focus; and without focus there is no learning. 20 years of studies by many researchers show that when students are engaged their…

  • ability to concentrate on academics improves
  • achievement scores improve
  • attendance improves
  • critical thinking skills are enhanced
  • classroom management issues decrease
  • and classtime becomes a delight

There is no upside to socializing students to accept that school is a grind and they need to get used to it. Ultimately kids focus on things they enjoy and conversely enjoy things they focus on. So cracking the puzzle of engagement solves a lot of education problems.

4. What can a school, education or youth leader do help their staff/school be better at student engagement?

I don’t believe in reductive “best practices” because that assumes that strategies that work in 1st period are the best for 2nd period, and teachers realize quickly that this just isn’t the case. Teaching is more complex. But here’s a few ideas….In terms of curriculum, we need to shift away from so much test-prep. To engage students we have to get them solving problems, or making decisions, or playing around with identity in simulations, or creating stuff with peers. Also, there is a growing body of research that suggests that Project Based Learning or PBL successfully engages our most vulnerable student populations.

Obviously, novelty works—so go ahead and dress up as Abraham Lincoln.

Also, I’m fascinated by a middle school in Naperville, Illinois that was profiled in a book called Spark, by John Ratey. The PE teacher there shifted the focus to cardiovascular fitness. He gave students heart rate monitors during PE and graded students on how much time they spent in their target heart rate zone. He also gave students a menu of aerobic activities they could choose from: stationary bikes or Dance Dance Revolution mats, or 3 on 3 basketball—so no kids were standing around waiting in line to play a sport. Naperville also instituted zero hour PE, before 1st period and found that students who participated showed a 17% improvement in their reading comprehension. Notably, in 1999, Naperville’s 8th graders earned first place in a worldwide science test. The neuroscience behind this is that exercise boosts dopamine and dopamine boosts focus as well a feelings of well being. That’s why John Ratey calls aerobic exercise "Miracle Gro for the student mind."

5. Provide a few practical, useful tips or strategies an educator can do to better engage young people through their instruction?

First off, teachers should have something imbedded in every class that they look forward to. Maybe a story. As an example, right before starting a writing workshop, I say: “Today I reveal a secret—how I used writing to convince my future wife to date me.” Also, there is research that shows that connective instruction is 7x more effective at engaging students than other major engagement practices. So I try and show concern for students well being by always starting the class off with a social-emotional-learning routine where I ask each student share good news.

I also recommend that every 12-minutes, you have students stand up, turn to a partner and summarize key take-aways, or answer prompts about what they have just learned. Standing up increases oxygen to the energy-hungry prefrontal cortex and wakes students up. Also, oral summary of what has been learned is helpful for wiring new information into the brain.

Another idea...When working with students who are repeaters and don’t have a history of academic success, it is important to know that repeaters benefit from instructors telling stories about former students who struggled and prevailed. Vulnerable students begin to replace their stories of failure with your aspirational narratives. They adopt these new narratives and draw upon them during times of struggle.

6. How might we know that we are engaging students? What are observations or outcomes we might see?

When you have students stand up and summarize something, watch their hands. Students who gesture a lot are more engaged. Also, a study of 11th graders in Berlin showed that gesturing is linked to higher levels of fluid intelligence – which is the ability to think abstractly, see patterns, and solve problem. Another thing you can do is use Socrative to anonymously poll students. Have them rate how engaged they are: 1 being 'not very' and 5 being 'a lot.'

7. Is there a book, print, smart phone app or web site resource you found useful and would recommend to our listeners?

I’d recommend Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain by award-winning neuroscience researcher Janet Zadina.

Also is a great web site with video and audio casts that introduce students to mindfulness training. Twelve minutes of meditation gives you 95% of the benefits according to Siegel.

8. What is some parting advice or a tip for educators.

I’d just say that teaching is really hard. And that’s a gift. I’ve had a lot of so called easy jobs, like being a security officer at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. That job was 20x harder than teaching, because you watch the clock all day don’t make much of a dent in the universe. For teachers the days always zoom by because we’re challenged—and when human beings are challenged, that’s when life is most interesting.

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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