When students are engaged they are more likely to excel. As educators we know the importance of engaging our students. It is the key that unlocks learning and achievement. 

So how can we drive student engagement? 

Curiosity, inquiry, and agency are essential ingredients. And if we design learning and teaching with the concept of flow or productive struggle in mind, we may just have the magic recipe to engage the minds and hearts of our students.

Through decades of research, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during a state of consciousness called flow, defining it as, ‘joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life.’ He states, ‘The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’ (2008). 

Michael Toth, Founder of Learning Science Applied Research Center, defines productive struggle, where ‘students work with knowledge and skills slightly above their current level of competency (which) occurs when students are thinking their way through a difficult solution or grappling with complex issues while the teacher steps back’ (2019). 

So, how can we design learning engagements with productive struggle, or flow, in mind? 

You can find bite-size actionable strategies to drive engagement here:

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Or read below to learn with some of MiniPD’s experienced coaches, who are IB and non-IB international school educators as they share selected teacher-driven and student-driven engagement strategies.

Teacher-driven engagement strategies

Engagement can come from the quality of teacher-student learning focused interaction, an important piece in the effective teaching and learning dynamic. The effectiveness of these strategies can rely heavily on teacher-student relationships and the energy and dynamism that the teacher can inject into direct instruction. Consider the points below to develop the quality of your teacher-driven engagement strategies:

  • Focus on building strong learning-focused relationships with your students – combine assertiveness with warmth
  • Provide dynamic high-energy direct instruction with relatable content – underpin with well established behavioural expectations for learning
  • Use high intensity rapid fire questioning at appropriate times – plan and balance spacing of quizzing over time
  • Pitch it up to ensure you are driving learning to appropriate standards – eliminate mediocrity
  • Model metacognitive thinking and promote metacognitive talk in your lessons – use process questions such as ‘how do you know?’ or ‘how did you work that out?’

Student-driven Engagement Strategies

In student-driven strategies, engagement comes from peer interaction. It is these strategies that are at the heart of effective learning. Consider the strategies  below to ignite curiosity, drive agency and promote inquiry in your students.

  1. Challenging and Interesting Tasks to Ignite Curiosity

Ensure tasks have sufficient challenge and interest to appeal to the minds and hearts of students.

Erica Chiotti, MiniPD Coach, writes in Setting the stage for Curiosity, Inquiry and Agency in the Classroom, ‘Consider planning an opportunity for your students to inquire into the concept of inquiry by creating experiences in which students need to make discoveries, co-constructing common understandings about inquiry and research’ and ‘generating a learning menu to access during future explorations.’ Students will feel empowered as they will have ownership, voice and choice in their learning pathways.

  1. Collaborative Structures to Drive Agency

Curate active and collaborative learning engagements with students’ roles and responsibilities in mind. 

Ali Ezzedine, MiniPD Coach, in his article,  I’m a New Teacher, Where to Start Regarding Inquiry-based Learning? invites us to remember that we ‘are not anymore the sources of knowledge,’ we ‘are here to guide students on how to reach suitable resources and learn from them.’ Design collaborative tasks to scaffold learning and manage cognitive load. As you step back as the teacher facilitator, your responsiveness to provide further resources, graphic organizers, or pocket mini-lessons of direct instruction can be incorporated as needed to ensure productive struggle does not become unproductive.

  1. Questioning Structures to Promote Inquiry

When designing learning with productive struggle in mind, purposefully develop a culture of questioning as an essential component.

Engy Olama, MiniPD Coach, in her article Students’ Engagement Defined by Students recommends providing students with ‘opportunities to ask questions’ so that they are able to ‘take time to write meaningful questions’ with ‘time to reflect and assess their questions.’  She says ‘when all students are involved from the beginning of the lesson, teachers will learn more about the students’ level of understanding and adjust the planning accordingly. We have to make sure we are not following a script when we ask questions, but we should facilitate the discussion and scaffold learning.’  

So, what does student engagement look like in your classroom? 

Consider your current students and your practice.

To what extent do any of your students show high engagement: energy, joy, and creativity? Do your students have active roles and responsibilities learning with peers and resources? Do they face interesting tasks just beyond their current level of understanding?

To what extent do any of your students show low engagement: apathy, low energy or a lack of joy? Do you talk and your students listen, passive in their learning? Are your students listening to long moments of direct instruction, low in energy? Are they learning mainly through worksheets or mandated assignments? Are they mainly working alone? 

Make the change if it’s needed. Engagement matters.

Join the Conversation

We invited educators from around the world to join us in a Coaches-in-Conversation on Driving Engagement in December 2021. Jump into the recording below to listen and learn new approaches to drive engagement.. 

Wanting to further the conversation?  

Needing a thought partner? A critical friend? Schedule one-to-one coaching sessions with any of our inspirational MiniPD Coaches above about areas that can support you to drive engagement in your classroom with your students!


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