Engaging Students...Dangling the Carrot
By William D. Waidelich, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Association for Middle Level Education
It wasn't that long ago. Students sat in rows and watched, glassy-eyed, as the teacher lectured in front of class. Lectures were very common in teaching and learning. In those days, student success was measured by homework turned in on time, neatly penned; posters created with markers and colorful snippets from magazines; and book reports teachers could use to measure if a student actually read the book.
Today's modern educators know better. Middle grades students can be found addressing city council, building a prototype city that generates its own electricity, developing a smart phone app, creating a marketing plan for a local business, and writing or illustrating a self-published book. Students who are engaged in their own learning are productive, motivated, and successful.
Students in the middle grades, with their desire to understand the world and endless interest in championing a cause, have always had the capacity to exceed our expectations. Successful middle grades teachers present students with the opportunity to embrace their own learning by giving them the chance to find what they care about or take an interest in. In great classrooms with innovative educators, this is done every day while meeting standards and raising test scores.
Throughout our nearly 40 years as an organization, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) has advocated that students must be active and have the chance to self-direct their learning (the democratic classroom) and that curriculum must be meaningful and relevant (This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, 2010). Our content development has seen "engaging students" as a consistent theme, and we know that it works best when educators understand the unique nature of students who are 10 to 15 years old.
AMLE helps educators understand the research-based practices that keep students engaged. Some key concepts from recent articles:
- Before teaching something new, help the students make connections between themselves and the topic.
- Employ a culture of learning where the learner — not the subject matter — is the center of the learning.
- Increase student self-efficacy: Change a "can't do" attitude into a "can do" attitude.
- Teachers matter — Building strong connections with students has a positive effect on their motivation to learn and succeed.
- Connect students to the real world using Project-Based Learning.
- When students are talking, they're thinking. Set up structured environments for students to talk and share.
As we know in the middle grades, particularly in the midst of dealing with high-stakes tests, it's too easy to fall back to the more controlled — and controlling — lectures or drill-and-kill techniques. Our kids learn and accomplish way more with well-dangled carrots of opportunity, instructional methods that are developmentally appropriate, and chances to take control of their own learning.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.