This post is second in a series of six to get ready for the new year. . . . The year 2020 reminds me of perfect vision! 2019 was a year of many initiatives, goals, and needs; it’s time to put everything in focus. If you missed the first post, click here!

Yes, you have a curriculum, pacing requirements, quarterly exams, or any of a number of other pressures to ensure students achieve at high academic levels. But take a step back to put this goal in focus.

Great, standards-based lessons and instructional materials are a necessary but insufficient component of achievement. First, you must engage students’ minds. True engagement creates a “felt need” to learn. Once students have this motivational drive, they will be ready to access materials, lessons, and all opportunities to learn. First, engage!

When students’ minds are engaged, the likelihood of learning and long-term retention of learning increases. By engagement, I don’t mean hands-on activities, fun, and entertainment. I mean minds-on grappling with the task at hand; I mean students who are so in flow, they forget about lunch and dismissal. Here are some tips for building engagement:

  • – Ensure that instructional activities challenge students just above their ability level. (This is a key tenet of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory — this is a great blog post and video by John Spencer to sum it up!) This requires differentiation, as every student’s “flow” point will be different.
  • – Follow Daniel Pink’s formula for Drive: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Those three components will engage students’ minds: ensuring they have access to what they need to achieve mastery at increasingly difficult levels, opportunities to make choices, and relevance.
  • – As students meet with success, ask them “What if?” questions to challenge them to the next level. Listen for the sounds of engagement in the classroom.
  • – Teach through problems! (You know what a fan I am of this approach.) Problems that are interesting, relevant, and somewhat challenging to students drive their engagement.
  • – Let students be the problem-finders and then see how you can work your curriculum into their interests. (Okay, this is a bit out there, but doable! Check out my TED Ed talk on this subject.)

It’s not as hard as it seems. And engagement both requires and builds executive function skills. It is one of the greater life skills I reference in my book Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement. (See the first post in this Focus 2020 series.) Focus first on ensuring students are engaged; then ensure they have differentiated opportunities to learn; achievement will follow.

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