Teaching for Positive Engagement

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Written by Dr. Donna Wilson and Dr. Marcus Conyers 

Studies suggest that creating a positive learning environment may lead to higher levels of engaged learning and reduced behavioral challenges. The beginning of the school year provides an excellent opportunity to establish a classroom where all students believe they will have a successful year and feel motivated to do so. Below we discuss six tried-and-true classroom-tested ideas to support positive student engagement we have shared with educators internationally over the past two decades. Over the years we have received feedback from many educators that these ideas have been particularly useful in their classrooms and schools.

  1. Positive Review. At the end of the day or class period, ask students to name what is positive that happened to them during the day. Naming and briefly explaining such occurrences helps students become mindful of the positive. With students who have behavioral and/or academic challenges at school, it is sometimes necessary to help them become aware of something positive that has happened. Sometimes, when they first start using this strategy, students with challenges will need help to identify and talk about the positive due to a lack of experience in thinking positively and/or receiving positive feedback. Over time, most students can be expected to begin to participate with fewer prompts.
  2. Positive Scan. After introducing “Positive Review” above, most teachers also use the “Positive Scan” approach by suggesting that students actively look out for positive experiences or events that happen tomorrow. Then, when they have an opportunity to discuss what positive things happened, students can begin to think about and scan for the positive on a consistent basis.

These two simple tools can help students with learning and/or behavioral challenges to learn to think more positively and search for possible positive alternatives when confronted with challenges. Educators enjoy using the “Positive Review” and “Positive Scan” strategies consistently over time to help students to be mindful of how they can influence others through their positive intentions, thoughts, words, and actions.

  1. The Amazing Brain. Our research indicates that students are fascinated by their own brains, and they become excited to discover that they have many billions of neurons capable of creating more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way! There is a lightbulb moment when they think, through effort and the use of strategies, that they can become better at learning. A powerful approach for supporting this belief is to teach students that their brains change when they are engaged in learning.
  2. Movement. Researchers have found that physical activity is important for children and youth across their years in school, from preschool through college. Appropriate movement throughout the school day may be particularly important for higher-order thinking as it can support the needed flow of glucose and oxygen to the brain. Many educators we work with enjoy using activities such as warm-up exercises at the beginning of the day, P.E., recess, stretches, and other types of “brain breaks” in the classroom. Planning age-appropriate active games and incorporating movement into lessons to reinforce content help to make learning not only engaging but also enjoyable and memorable.
  3. Cognitive Load. The term cognitive load refers to the amount of information that can be held in working memory at any one time. When presenting a lesson that includes a lot of new material students need to learn, it is important that teachers are aware of the cognitive load that they are asking their students to process and remember. It may be helpful to break down content into approximately 8- to 20-minute “chunks” [young children may need to have shorter lessons] with an appropriate amount of time for processing. Since teachers are the experts in their areas of content and development of their students, they can fine-tune the optimal time for focused learning and downtime for processing information and necessary “brain breaks” especially when the lesson is complex.
  4. Variety. Using a mixture of instructional techniques engages students’ different pathways for approaching learning tasks and successfully processing information. Tapping into visual, kinesthetic, tactile, and auditory pathways when facilitating learning can be both motivating and memorable for students. Giving learners opportunity to actively process content via discussions in partners, small and whole groups, self-reflection, and projects, for example, can result in greater engagement than a long lecture or series of worksheets.

Drs. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, ASCD authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, are co-founders of BrainSMART, a professional development group dedicated to improving teaching and learning through innovative frameworks and strategies for putting research into practice. They are authors of 20 books and 75 articles and developers of the world’s first graduate degree programs in brain-based teaching. The duo’s original approach is featured on ASCD’s new video series, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains. On Videos #1 and 2, Donna models teaching students about their brain’s plasticity and ways to use movement and variety in the classroom.

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