Student Engagement

  • On 2010-07-20

What gets students engaged in a topic?

It is a constant question that many educational consultants get from teachers.

The answer is both simple and complex at the same time! In some ways it is two questions – “how do I get the students interested and engaged in what we are covering” and “how do I keep them engaged

According to neuroscience what causes engagement is novelty. Something out of the ordinary. Something .. novel that the brain hasn’t seen before or rarely experiences. Novelty electrifies attention. Why? Our brains are designed to constantly constantly scan for danger because its prime mission is to keep the body healthy and safe. The limbic system within the brain is the oldest part of the brain and it controls memory, emotions, smell and hunger. It also controls the flight or fight function of the brain. You can consider the limbic system is the foundation of our operating system. So if you can create something that grabs the attention of the brain it will engage your students.

Emotion is also a key factor in engagement and learning. If you can connect through to what matters for students and they can connect to the rest of their knowledge (in their day to day life). If you are not concretely connecting to what the students know or are too abstract then this is where students become disengaged. This is where domains such as mathematics really struggles. One of the strengths I created for myself when teaching engineering at university was to ensure that the students realised that all the mathematics had a practical and real world application and derivation mostly in their day to day life.

Interestingly enough … what embeds knowledge is rituals. The ritualising of actions, or repetition, will create the deeper neural connections. Sports organisations are brilliant at this. In Australia the Auskick program (associated with the Australian Football League and funded by the National Australia Bank) does a remarkable job of engaging kids and doing the rote drills (rituals) to embed the learning. You can see how successful it is by the skills development of the game at both junior and senior levels. Senior AFL players are much like Formula One drivers in their ability to react and interpret the game.

We can ritualise activities and templates and role modelling as teachers. Use graphic organisers in your classes consistently and ritually. Model the behaviour you want to achieve. If we do the thinking about how we are going to develop skills in our students then there will be a range of approaches you can use. Key to all of this is to ensure that students are connected to the context of the learning. If it is something that is not connected to what matters for them then their brains will automatically tune out.

My question to you as a reader of my blog is … how are you creating novelty and rituals in the class? I coach teachers on how they can do this in my Practical Inquiry Based Learning Workshops (http://www.intuyuconsulting.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=9).

As a final piece to this blog, Charles Leadbeater, quite a world reknown speaker about creativity and innovation, presented the following talk at a TED conference earlier this year from research that he did into Innovation in Education around the world. He not only found that enormous innovation is occuring in the slums around the world but many of the principles that we talk about around Inquiry Based Learning (espeically about engagement). Enjoy the presentation!

 

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