engage-empower

10 ways to create engaging schools


Focusing on technology, communication, and other strategies can help students retain their love of learning

engaging-empoweringTechnology integration and project-based learning are two of 10 strategies that one district technology director uses to help educators create engaging schools and classrooms that excite and empower students.

Ninety-five percent of kindergartners are truly enthusiastic about school, but for some reason, that enthusiasm wanes, and only 37 percent of ninth graders are enthusiastic about school and learning, said Robert Dillon, director of technology and innovation for the Affton School District in St. Louis, during an edWeb Connected Educator Month webinar.

School leaders must find a way to sustain that kindergarten enthusiasm all the way through high school.

“When I talk about leading, it doesn’t mean being the principal,” Dillon said. “I believe everyone in our ecosystem is a leader—from teachers, to school resource officers, to students.”

(Next page: 10 steps to engaging and empowering students)

1. Sustainable education: Building a strong curriculum around social, economic, and environmental justice helps today’s students “unlock” their place on the planet and reach beyond their hometowns and communities.

“Schools that do sustainability really well have to move to a point where they talk about social and economic justice issues,” Dillon said. For more details, visit the Cloud Institute for Sustainability in Education.

2. Technology integration: “It’s really important that kids have time to use technology to truly dig deep into the things they’re passionate about,” Dillon said.

The amount of time kids have to explore their passions, with their device, beyond the school day, is highly impactful.

“Kids are learning all the time about things they’re passionate about. They’re not waiting for teachers to teach them. We are way past the idea that technology is all about ‘stuff’ and piling more things into schools. Technology integration gives kids a way to deal with [today’s] fire hose of information,” he said. Dillon recommended BrightBytes for more on this engagement strategy.

3. Project-based learning: “One of the high-engagement strategies is that kids are deeply involved in projects that, in the end, they have an authentic audience—kids have choice, kids have voice, and kids have an authentic audience,” Dillon said.

Time is often a challenge around project-based learning, and educators often wonder how to weave multiple units and essential learning objectives together, but it can be done, he said.

“If the project comes at the very end of a unit, it’s not project-based learning—it’s a project. [Project-based learning] is the project and the process throughout the unit.”

4. Seeing in systems: Systems training and systems learning, as well as the concept of design thinking, work well when it comes to engaging students and helps them realize the value in becoming problem solvers.

Creating a ‘fail forward’ culture encourages students to attempt to solve a problem and, if they fail, they come back with improved solutions.

Building students’ capacity to think in systems creates students who are “solutionists,” Dillon said.

“We want kids to create solutions. Ultimately, that’s what we want—kids thinking about how to solve the big hairy problems of the world. I think that’s really important, and I think that only comes through things like design and systems thinking.”

5. The power of story: Students build empathy when they know their peers’ stories. These stories strengthen student voice, and student voice is a key part of engagement.

“If kids have voice, they’re leaning into their learning,” Dillon said.

6. Citizen science: “When we get kids outside, when we get kids doing real work for real scientists, things come alive,” Dillon said.

Citizen science helps students feel like science is authentic, and it’s also a great way to collect data and help students grow accustomed to handling data.

7. Thin classroom walls: “We have to move past the classroom being the only place kids learn—we need to get kids outside in the community, and outside of the community, to learn,” Dillon said, pointing to Promise of Place as an example.

The image of a traditional classroom should be banished, he added, and instead, stakeholders should realize that classrooms in which kids create, collaborate, and think critically about real issues are the classrooms that will best prepare students for college and careers.

8. A place to make: Maker spaces are gaining popularity, and for good reason—they are engaging students with open-ended learning exploration and possibilities.

Dillon predicted that one day, students are likely to see a “make” option on devices, much like there today exits a “print” option. Makerspace.com and makezine.com offer helpful resources, he said.

9. Empathy: “Empathy is the proactive way of dealing with bullying in schools,” Dillon said. “How are you proactively, by design, thinking about teaching kids how to be empathetic? If we’re not building a school full of kids with empathy, we’re probably not doing our work.”

10. Expeditionary Learning: Expeditionary Learning moves students into an environment where they truly stop to see, and learn from, the environment around them. It resembles a community-oriented form of project-based learning and includes empathy, exploration, social learning, and more.

Laura Ascione

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