The ins and outs of student engagement

Today’s students are more thoroughly engaged in those activities that appeal to their creativity, their competitiveness, and their need to socialize than any time in our history.

With their iPods, pocket PCs, laptops and mobile phones, they are engaging almost continuously in the world around them. Within this vast storehouse of information, they have learned how to work with Word, Power Point and Excel as well as 101 ways to use their iPods — expanding their understanding and the ability to communicate that understanding in innovative ways.

Technology has changed their lives. In so doing, it has presented educators with a dilemma as to how to use the very elements that engage them with technology to encourage them to be mentally present in the classroom.

Why do some students come to school inherently eager to learn, then become disengaged inside the classroom? What makes many young students who are naturally curious, with active imaginations and eager minds, "tune out" after they pass through the schoolhouse door? Why do other children consistently view school as a fun exciting cool place to be and excited at the possibilities ahead of them?

The answer lies in that foundational but often overlooked reality that different students learn differently. We must find effective ways to tap their inherent instinct to want to know and want to be able to do so. Even more significantly, the scenario is set against the harsh reality: Students are expected to learn in ways that are inconsistent (and frequently opposite) to how learning happens.

Often they are expected to learn in ways that are convenient for the institution and teacher, rather than ways that are brain-compatible, natural and consistent with their “other” learning — learning that has taken place since birth. All of which goes on outside of school without teacher, textbook or worksheet.

What is it that makes a classroom and lesson brain-compatible? Over the past 30 years, research in neuroscience (specifically with the brain) has contributed greatly to our understanding of the phenomena of learning.

The following elements are a lens that provides a brain-compatible guide for classroom instruction:

1. Absence of threat

2. Meaningful content

3. Choices

4. Enriched environment

5. Movement to enhance learning

6. Adequate time

7. Immediate feedback

8. Collaboration

9. Mastery (application)

Interestingly, these are the very same elements that attract students to technology:

1. There is an absence of threat at some level where peers or a teacher are not present.

2. They make content meaningful using a variety of tools in a combination of ways to suit individual needs and interests.

3. There are unlimited choices in the gathering and presenting of information; their learning becomes interactive and multifaceted.

4. They enrich their research with a variety of modes of presentation skills, developing new forms of evaluation formats and critical thinking opportunities.

5. Movement — with the assistance of mirror neurons, the neurons that watch movement, their bodies are mirroring the action; their bodies are reacting even as they watch others on their screens move.

6. They are in charge of their own time and will work at their own pace as long as their curiosity and interest is sustained.

7. As they discover and uncover information, there is immediate feedback that allows them to expand their thinking, check other sources and engage experts where possible.

8. They collaborate/socialize with those they have something in common with expanding their connection worldwide and paving the way for their future.

9. They will stay with a "game" or project until they have achieved mastery.

The good news is that the emerging technology provides a range of opportunities for the teacher to engage students and provides ways students can participate using their acquired expertise. Using the vast array of available technology, it is possible for every subject to have new and dynamic connections, making learning more meaningful and engaging.

It is not that students will not engage. It is that they have chosen what engages them.

Stay tuned.

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