Engaging Students with a Balance between Support and Challenge

bookLast month, my colleague, Randi Downs, wrote a blog about clarity and relevance as two keys to capture true engagement in the classroom. I also read Robyn Jackson and Alison Zmuda’s article, “4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement” in the September 2014 issue of Educational Leadership. As a classroom teacher, and now, a trainer and coach, I am always thinking about how to engage students in their learning. Teachers are always asking the question, “How do I engage ALL of my students in ________?” (You fill in the blank). For me, I think about the balance between challenging students to do their best work and supporting their learning. How do I push them to take on a challenging assignment or task while also providing the right amount of support so they don’t get frustrated and give up?

The goal is to create a classroom culture that encourages students to take risks and be willing to struggle productively and sometime fail. How do we do this and still provide unfailing support – the structures and scaffolding students need when they reach the tipping point of frustration? Part of the answer is to be proactive about guiding students through the learning so we are ready when we see that frustration. If we think about the misconceptions and roadblocks those students sitting in front of us will face as the lesson proceeds, we can plan for the supports they need to jump over those roadblocks and to clear up those misconceptions when we see the confusion and frustration appear. Provide time, invite revision, give them growth producing feedback, use small group work to allow collaboration with their peers, and use formative assessment to inform your instruction and planning for the next day. Challenge your students with assignments that invite wonder and inquiry – not work that is “Googleable”. Most of all, keep looking for that “free fall of failure” so you can jump in with a support to stop that fall.

Figure 1. Keys to Engagement: Student and Teacher Perspectives

Keys to Engagement Student Perspective Teacher Perspective
Clarity What am I aiming for?

  • I can see how the pieces fit together.
  • I can see the logic of what I’m being asked to do.
  • I can track my progress over time on a goal.
What am I asking students to do?

  • Provide clear goals and structures for each task.
  • Explain the key steps and give examples.
  • Show students what success will look like.
Context Why should I care?

  • I can use my strengths to complete the assignment.
  • I can publish my work for a target audience.
  • I can be a change agent in my community.
Why is this important?

  • Determine the “why” of your curriculum first.
  • Activate or provide background knowledge.
  • Help students connect what they’re learning to their own lives.
Culture Who is invested in my success?

  • I can frame ideas, questions, or predictions and take action to figure the problem out.
  • I can play, problem solve, and fail in order to dig deeper into the challenge.
  • I can be held accountable to high standards.
How do I show my support?

  • Anticipate confusion.
  • Identify red flags.
  • Implement progressive interventions.
Challenge How is it working for me?

  • I can identify what I don’t know.
  • I can use resources to work through challenges.
  • I can think about my progress and whether I should start over.
How do I balance challenge and skill?

  • Provide growth-oriented feedback.
  • Focus on effort rather than ability.
  • Teach students that they can get smarter.
  • Build resilience over time.
(Zmuda & Jackson, Educational Leadership, September 2014)

Keim_Joanne_SMALLJoanne Keim

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