Students or Point Collectors?

I’m spending time today working on a Professional Development session for the faculty of my school tomorrow. I lead a group of teachers who focus on student engagement, and we have been asked to share what we are learning with the other teachers in our school.

Student engagement cannot be forced… you’ve heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!” Student engagement is very much like that. We teachers can do all we can do to engage each student in the room simultaneously, but some will just refuse to be engaged. We almost have to trick them into it… and we need as many tools in that student engagement toolbox to grab each one.

I have started following other educators on Twitter… it’s almost like we each are preaching to the choir about our struggles and successes, Aaaarrrgh moments and Aha moments, frustrating days and fantastic days… but we need each other.  No one else understands what we do everyday. One of them posted this the other day: “If the biggest thing you take away from a course is a grade, you and your teacher did it wrong” Dean Shareski @shareski. I was ecstatic because I believe the same thing.  I’ve always said that I have students and point collectors… I prefer students.

I have had students argue with me over my evaluation of an assignment or an essay. They fight for points rather than ask what information could they have added or what skill could they have improved or what part of the final product could have been presented with more polish to earn 100% of the points. Honestly, after many years of teaching and evaluating student work, it is easier to affix a 100% to every assignment than to evaluate the learning that is presented as well as the manner and skill of the presentation accurately. It is easier… it is not more effective… or more motivational to the student.

I believe motivation makes the difference – and creates true students. What is the motivation for each student to want to succeed? If it is merely that grade, then the motivation is extrinsic. If it is learning, then the motivation is intrinsic. Could we have students who have a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – of course, but which one is primary? And how can we encourage the intrinsic motivation to grow when assigning grades to everything we do is a requirement?

Edutopia recently published a paper on student engagement by John McCarthy. I will be using some of his thoughts as I share mine with you.

First of all, keep it real… and that must begin with the instructor. A student can smell a fake like a dog smells fear. Be honest, be genuine, be real. Explain the purpose for the lesson… not just to meet a requirement in the curriculum, but the purpose for future learning and life! As often as possible connect what you are learning to students’ interests and lives. Anytime you can get that lesson to extend beyond those school walls you are on your way to engaging students.

Second, don’t assign points to absolutely everything you do in class! That will take some pressure off of all of you! An activity isn’t fun for you if you are still evaluating everything every student is doing. Enjoy the activity with them – your engagement and excitement is contagious. Don’t penalize the reluctant participants, just encourage them; they’ll come around – they just may take a little more time than others.

Third, celebrate their learning! Learning for learning’s sake sounds like a great motivator, but not when the learners don’t notice!  During a bell ringer (warm-up) one day ask random questions around the room of things they have learned so far. When they answer correctly, celebrate!  “How do you know that?  Why is that important? You have learned so much!” I like to keep some work from the beginning of the year to give back to them either in the middle or at the end. When they see how far they have come, they start to understand why we get together each day.

Fourth – make a connection. For many students, pleasing a teacher who encourages them will engage them more than any grade ever will. Ask about the activities they are involved in. Remember some random thing a student told you, and ask about it later – that means more to that student than you will ever know.

Fifth – give them choices. Differentiated Instruction gurus are big on student choice. Differentiating product is much easier than differentiating process. How can you allow different students to work through and learn the same material, accomplishing the same objectives, but doing things in a different way? Google it – more has been published on differentiated instruction than almost any other educational initiative. You will find more ideas than you can ever use for your particular students by age/level/content.

We are still at the beginning of the year. You have several months ahead of you to create students in your classroom. Do one new thing this week… just one… baby steps!  Engage WITH your students; you will all enjoy the journey so much more!