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Through authentic learning, we can improve student engagement and demonstrate how the work they do in class has an impact on the broader world

How to ignite the fire of student engagement


Through authentic learning experiences, we can improve student engagement and show students how the work they do in class has an impact on the broader world

Recently, a co-worker of mine shared a story from when he was in high school. During one chemistry class his teacher happened to light a small fire within a dish and began stirring in different compounds. First the fire turned green, then purple, and then finally blue. The students, who normally struggled to engage with the coursework, were completely enthralled. They began asking questions, forming hypotheses, and started investigating the subject themselves. A fire had been lit in that classroom – both literally and metaphorically.

Stories like these remind educators about the power of student engagement. Teaching, in many ways, is like building a fire. You simply gather the kindling (tools and strategies), create a spark (curiosity), and then add some logs to the fire (content). Still, many of us can have trouble striking that match. All too often, our students’ attitudes can feel dampened by apathy or outside distractions.

Building the blaze 

So, how do we create the circumstances for a roaring fire of student interest? I believe we start by tapping into their innate desire to learn. Curiosity is how we discover and ultimately navigate the world around us. By coaxing that curiosity to life, we can also kindle student engagement.

Here are a few strategies to get you started:     

The Mystery Box: Start your class with having the students ask yes/no questions to figure out what is in a box or include objects in the box that loosely connect to the content and have students draw the connection.

Zoom Out: Take a photo or screenshot of something that students will be learning about. Zoom in on that image and throughout the lesson, zoom out until you reveal the object. With each Zoom out, have students guess what the object is.

Reveal It: Start with a picture and reveal different pieces of it throughout the lesson. Want to see a video I made for a school on how to create one? Check it out here.

Impossible is Nothing: Pin a five-dollar bill to the wall. Then, offer to give it to the first student who solves a particular challenge. Here’s the twist: make sure the challenge is impossible. For example, have students build a perpetual motion machine or a two-sided polygon. Students learn to become fascinated by poking and prodding at problems. Make sure to praise them for persevering!

Taboo Tactics: There’s nothing more tempting than forbidden fruit—so use the Top-Secret strategy to make knowledge a mouthwatering apple. Before you teach new content, close the door. Tell them you don’t want anyone to find out that you’re teaching them this idea. Take advantage of the fact that people are fascinated by the illicit.

Gathering firewood

By providing authentic learning experiences, we can show them that the work they do in class has an impact on the broader world outside of our classroom walls. Best of all, we can stoke the fires of passion, curiosity, and creativity which empower them to grow. So, let’s not miss the opportunity to kindle student engagement within our classroom.

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