Friday, July 17, 2020

7 Characteristics of Learning that Cause Engagement and Empowerment

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A significant problem in education was amplified during the recent school closures across the country. As teachers scrambled to reach students with remote learning, successfully engaging students became an even bigger challenge than it normally was in the physical classroom.

And struggles with engagement were a huge problem already. Far too many students are not engaged in the learning process on a good day. But with distance separating us from our students, it became even more challenging.

So as we reflect on what worked and what didn't, we must return to the essential elements of engagement. As we prepare for the fall, we need to examine our instructional methods through an engagement lens.

How are we being intentional to design our classrooms or online experiences to make learning irresistible? That's a high standard. It may seem like it's an impossible standard. But if we aren't able to engage students in the learning process, we aren't going to be successful.

Too often it feels like we're struggling against students to get them to do what we need them to do instead of focusing on creating the conditions where they can be their best as a learner. 

We're successful only when our students are successful. And that means ALL students. So we must examine all of our practices through the lens of engagement and equity. We must create the conditions where all students can learn effectively.

If learning is a top priority, then making learning exciting and engaging and accessible must be a top priority too.

Now I know lots of things are barriers to learning aside from my list below. When remote learning became a thing, there were issues with internet and technology access, issues with adjusting to a new format for learning, and a whole variety of issues in homes and families across society that made giving attention to learning an incredible challenge.

But aside from those things, many of which we have no control over, we must design learning with these essentials in mind.

1. Curiosity

Learning begins with questions. It begins when your students realize a gap between what they know and what they want to know. Humans are naturally very curious and learning is completely a natural process. But when learning becomes simply an assignment to complete, it loses its variety, surprise, and wonder, and ultimately curiosity is stifled. Nothing destroys curiosity more than a worksheet or packet. That type of work gives students something to complete, not something to be curious about.

2. Relevance

Every learner is always seeking to understand the context and relevance of the learning. Why am I learning this? Is this important to me? We make decisions about where to focus our attention based on how we answer those questions. If we don't find it meaningful, helpful, interesting, or enjoyable, then we're not going to engage with it.

For too many kids, relevance feels like it's only to earn a grade or pass a class. And that's the end of it. They're just trying to make it through school instead of feeling like they're getting something meaningful from school. It doesn't feel relevant. So we must design learning experiences with that in mind. Students are asking these questions, "Why does this matter? Why should I care?" The answer should be more than, "Because it's on the test."

3. Choice

The lack of choice in learning leads to compliance, passivity, and apathy. Being human is making choices. It's been said the average person makes about 35,000 choices each day. 

If students aren't given the choice to have meaningful direction over their learning, they will likely choose anyway. They will choose to avoid it, resist it, or stop caring about it. For students to be excited about learning and invested in learning, they must feel like they have a real stake in it and real ownership over it.

Choice matters. Look for ways to increase student choice in "how" they are learning, "what" they are learning, "who" they are learning with or learning from. Choice in "where" they are learning and also "when" they learn. 

"The way a child learns to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions." -Alfie Kohn 
4. Identity

By the time kids get to high school, many of them have established a negative learning identity that is very difficult to overcome. The way they see themselves shapes how they choose to engage as a learner. Sometimes we don't see this internal dialogue they're having, but sometimes they also speak it out loud.

"I don't like reading."

"I'm not good at math."

"I'm not the type of person who participates in class."

"People like me aren't smart."

"School isn't for me."

A new one I've heard: "I can't learn online or with a computer."

I like to think every kid has a natural heart for learning that we have an obligation as educators to protect and nurture. But I fear that too often we are part of the problem. 

If we're not careful, well-intended interventions become a constant reminder of what a student isn't good at. Awards and public recognition only go to a certain type of student. A relentless focus on proficiency, test scores, grades, or honor roll, leads some to believe they aren't cut out for learning.

Which is worse, for a child to leave our schools without reaching proficiency on learning standards or to leave our schools with the belief they can't learn? For me, knowing their strengths and how they are smart is more important than checking off mastery of a standard.

As we build that confidence in learning, more kids are going to reach proficiency as a consequence of the focus being on the person, not on an arbitrary measure or data point. The focus needs to be on growth and nurturing strengths, not fitting all kids into the exact same academic box.

Every kid should be aware of their strengths as a learner, not just their weaknesses.

5. Competence

For students to engage in learning, it must be challenging but not too challenging. No meaningful learning happens without mild frustration. Some discomfort is part of the learning process. 

But when the learner is overwhelmed by the concept or the task, they are likely to do what most every human would do under the same conditions. They'll avoid the learning, turn their attention to something else, or act out in frustration.

If you haven't been to the gym for years and you show up and the trainer puts you through a workout like you're a CrossFit champion, you're not going back for the second workout, and you probably aren't even going to finish the workout. You physically won't be able to.

It's a difficult balance for teachers. Too much challenge is overwhelming. But too much scaffolding is enabling. 

What I have noticed is that kids can take on greater academic challenges when they really care about and connect with what they are learning. For instance, a student will push through a text that is above their reading level if the topic and content captures their imagination.

6. Connection

Relationships matter for learning in undeniable ways. When I reflect on the most powerful learning experiences I had as a student, the connection I had with my teachers was significant.

I viewed the teacher as someone who cared about me, who could help me, who was a mentor to me. I wanted to be more like the teacher. I could relate to them and connect to who they were as a person.

I felt like they valued me, believed in me, and wanted the best for me. I didn't feel like they just wanted something from me. They opened me up to new possibilities.

What I've found is the people in my life who influenced me the most were the people who believed in me. Even if I wasn't the best, strongest, smartest, or whatever, they had a way of showing that they believed in me. I want to be that person for my students, and I hope you do too.

At its very essence, learning is social. We are meant to learn with others, from others, and to also be able to contribute to the learning of others. Every kid has something to offer to the learning of the other students in the classroom. How are you elevating these voices as the teacher?

Every kid is trying to answer these questions every day:
1. Am I important to someone here? 
2. Do I belong here? 
3. Am I good at something here? 
4. Who will listen to me here? 
5. Is my presence here making a difference?
I'm not sure if it's true that students can't learn from teachers they don't like. I remember one teacher I didn't like at all, and I'm pretty sure I still learned some stuff from her. 

But what I am certain about is that students will learn even more from teachers they like. They will learn even more when they buy into the person who is teaching them.

7. Feedback

I remember submitting a paper in college and when it was returned from the professor I noticed there was nothing on the front page. I started flipping through the pages, looking for comments, or markings, or anything. 

On the very last page, at the conclusion of my very last paragraph, there was one thing written, simply a "B."

What the heck, I thought! It wasn't that I was that terribly disappointed with the "B." But I was just frustrated there wasn't any other comment or justification for the grade.

And this was feedback after the learning had taken place. It was the type of feedback I was most familiar with as a student. It was rare during my years of schooling to have feedback from the teacher during the learning. And yet this is the most powerful kind.

There's been a lot written about feedback for learning in recent years. I highly recommend Dylan Wiliam's work on this topic. His book Embedded Formative Assessment is one of the best books on pedagogy I've ever read. And the title is riveting, right?

I noticed Bill Ferriter posted this great quote from Wiliam: 
Learners need feedback throughout the process of learning, to be more effective in the learning but also to be more engaged in the learning. Feedback guides and encourages the learner. It gives direction, but it also says keep going.

Student work becomes more meaningful when it's not just about turning in the assignment, finishing the task, being done with this so we can move on to the next thing. Learning is most meaningful when there is a cycle of sharing and revision and growth that is reviewed and made visible in the classroom.

One note here: Not all of this feedback has to come from the teacher. In fact, it's often just as effective when the feedback comes from other students or another third-party. When students know their work will be shared with an audience for feedback, it brings new purpose and meaning and contribution to the work.

I hope this post challenges you and gives you some things to think about related to engaging and even empowering students as learners. If we are striving to make learning irresistible, even when we fall short of that, we can know we're prioritizing the right things.

Our kids need to be engaged and empowered as learners and have experiences in school that make them want to learn even more.

What's your response to this post? What else would you add to this list? What have you found to be most effective for engaging students? How are you growing in this area? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to hear from you.

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