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Aurora Institute

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Increasing Engagement

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

icebergThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on February 23, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Now that we have thought about “pace” differently in a learner-centered proficiency based system, we can start to talk about the rest of the iceberg: engagement.

If a student is not engaged, and therefore running into the “problem of being behind pace,” there are really only two possible explanations for why:

  1. The content is above, or below, a student’s readiness level
  2. The learning environment is not engaging to the student

Humans, of all ages, don’t learn unless we want to and we can. If we are not interested in something or can’t see how it connects to our life in some way, forget it. Likewise if we are trying to do something that is way too hard, or way too easy. I’m talking about motivation theory and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Understanding and applying those ideas are essential to creating a learning environment that is engaging…. to the student.

Let’s start at the beginning of a unit of study. When we approach from the perspective of motivation theory and ZPD we first worry about figuring out what the students already know and are able to do. We also worry about getting them to want to learn the content of our unit. Using a strategy called “The Gapper” will help us get there.

A Gapper is an activity that does several things all at one. First, it is a type of pre-assessment. A quality gapper will clearly show you what your students know about a particular topic or how well they can perform a particular skill. Second, it makes it clear to the student what they know, and what they don’t. Shining a light on a gap in knowledge is a way of creating cognitive dissonance, which is a powerful motivator. Third, it makes students wonder about the content of the unit. This rounds out the motivation to learn. Finally, it can be used as a reflection tool at the end of the unit to show learning and growth.

With all this information in hand, we can now facilitate an incredibly engaging unit of study. We know who is ready for what, so instruction can be personalized. We already have some ideas for small groups, know what concepts and skills most students need, know who is ready to move into more complex thinking related to the targets in the unit. We can support students in setting personal learning goals. We can also begin connecting the content of the unit to the questions and wonderings the student had, and support them to find their own answers.

Here are some examples:

  • a very general writing prompt: Use everything you know about argument to write a piece that introduces and states a claim, supports it with reasons and evidence, and concludes in a way that convinces your readers of your ideas.
  • a ranking activity: In your group, rank order these leaders: Ghandi, George Washington, Vladimir Putin, Cleopatra, and Susan B. Anthony. Be ready to share your reasoning
  • a complicated problem: Use the data presented to you from 100 years of ice core readings to draw three different conclusions about what is happening and why.
  • a creating activity: Draw a map that shows your house in your community.

What are some of the concepts and skills for which we would get a picture of student readiness level? What are some of the potential wonderings students might have?