Productively engaging students is a real challenge — but the solution may not be too far out of reach.
How can we create a classroom situation where all our students are productively engaged?
Engaging a class of students in a lesson can feel like a daunting task, with constant disruptions and more students off-task than on-task. It can be overwhelming!
Setting up predictable routines and rituals for our students is key, and staying in touch with each of our students to help them engage with a meaningful task is a crucial element of creating a productive, positive work environment. The challenge is real — but the solution may not be too far out of reach. Our Three Sweeps resource (download here) provides a practical approach to getting all students on track and working.
The First Sweep
First, start students on an independent task like a warm up or “do now” prompt. The most effective opening activities are tasks that engage students in the topic or theme of the lesson using prior knowledge. As students enter the class, we can point them to the prompt and activate our first “sweep” by circulating through the entire class and “touching base” with each student using a light touch and offering an affirmation or posing a question, such as:
This first sweep is designed to acknowledge the students who are cooperative and on task (early adopters) and offer those who are not yet settled a calming and supportive first “touch.”
Let’s be real: students enter the classroom space in all different mindsets. We want to quickly and quietly acknowledge all of the students who are ready to work, and also have a personal and positive first contact with those who need more support to transition into their classwork. The first sweep communicates the expectation that you are recognizing each student in a supportive way, and it necessitates a personal exchange with each student.
After we’ve made contact with each student and either affirmed their engagement or redirected them to the task, we begin our second sweep.
The Second Sweep
Our second sweep is a second opportunity to touch base with all students, with a focus on supporting off-task or unsettled students settle into their work.
To start Sweep 2, quickly scan of the room and identify students who have not yet begun the activity. Maybe they’re talking or walking around the room, or maybe they’re distracted. Prioritize a second check-in with these students.
Now, the contact and questions with students can include slightly more pointed questions to pinpoint what may help each individual student engage in the task at hand. Depending on the specific situation with each student, and the prior exchange, these questions and comments may include:
Students in Sweep 2 will benefit from a next step action:
Often, we lean on negative interventions with students who exhibit off-task behaviors, calling out students’ names in front of the class, asserting the rules or expectations, or publicly demanding a change in action. Unfortunately, these tactics are more likely to antagonize students who are struggling to connect with the work and can escalate tensions and increase students’ insecurities.
The second sweep more deeply acknowledges each student’s specific needs and offers them advice or a tool to get to work. It should be done as calmly as possible with the expectation that students will respond productively. As much as this sweep is about positive reinforcements, it’s also about accountability. If a student says there are no barriers to begin their work, then there are no more excuses, either. If there are barriers to beginning, we want to know so we can remove them and work with kids so they can fully access the assignment.
Now, it’s time for Sweep 3.
The Third Sweep
In Sweep 3, we return to a touch point for every student in the class. For students who have been working well for the duration, this is the time to check for understanding, affirm their progress, clarify any questions, and identify any obvious misunderstandings in their work so far. For students who are still struggling to engage in the task, we restate our purpose and return to our redirection questions. Restating the purpose is an important moment to communicate a shared expectation and explicitly outline the value of the task, and the community expectations.
Notice that in these questions, we’re really focusing on asking the student to provide the solutions. When students choose to engage, or offer a suggestion for what would help them work better, they are more likely to implement the strategy they suggest, even if it doesn’t seem genuine to us in the moment. This is a key factor, because when we respond defensively to students who may show up distracted or disengaged, we can fall into exchanges that are more about power and control than they are about learning.
We want to remember that — especially when we’re striving to develop a culture of high expectations in a positive work environment — it's critical that we find the path to engage all students in meaningful work. That might mean setting aside our personal feelings, and staying laser focused on helping every student to engage in the task.
Making the most of each sweep
Getting used to the three sweeps may take a little time and a little practice, but we’ve found that this is a highly effective strategy throughout the class period. Each sweep ensures that every student has at least two personal interactions with their teacher(s), and that students struggling to engage in the content have at least three positive and proactive exchanges with their teacher(s) — each serving as an opportunity to engage. To maximize the use of Three Sweeps, consider these quick tips:
Three Sweeps can be a shortcut to student engagement and creating a culture of learning. When we get everyone involved and engaged, we can focus on the learning and build momentum towards deepening our students' content knowledge and skills on a daily basis.
Differentiating your instruction through strategic and flexible grouping.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
From the one room schoolhouse to the giant lecture hall, the image we often conjure of teaching is of the sage on the stage, the professor imparting wisdom on the entire student body who are hanging on our every word. But the reality is that whole class instruction is rarely effective as a meaningful and sustainable learning experience. Students’ academic knowledge and skills grow more when they’re personally engaged in a task or challenge that meets their learning needs, supports their learning differences, and is customized to help them get to their next step.
Educators can often become overwhelmed with the prospect of differentiating instruction for every single student in the classroom, and often feel frustrated having to design 30 different lesson plans. The good news is that while students do need instruction to be personalized to meet their needs, many of their needs are similar. As educators, we want to better recognize our students’ academic, social, emotional, and skill-based needs and strategically match them with other students in the class.
There’s a big difference between working in a group, and working with a group. In an effort to increase group work and collaboration, we will sometimes push desks together so students are sitting in a group, and then give them permission to talk to their groups while completing an individual task. While this is community-oriented, we can differentiate it from working with a group on a shared task.
Strategic grouping is a key feature in teaching effective collaboration skills, and in streamlining instruction to meet the needs of our diverse learners. Strategic — or purposeful — groups demonstrate that we’ve put some time, energy, and thought into who students should work with. We can consider factors like literacy or numeracy performance, communication styles (introvert/extrovert), skills and talents (artists, writers, organizers), and even gender considerations for creating groups that are similar or mixed.
One of the reasons strategic grouping is so difficult is because it requires us to know our learning outcomes, and to develop a strategy about the best ways to achieve this outcome. If I’m working on a unit where students will need to write an essay from a text they’ve read, I have to determine:
We can only answer these questions in the context of the class, the unit, and the end goal of the assessment.
Flexible grouping: number, color, shape
One of the most effective ways to establish strategic groups is to create groups that are flexible.
Developing strategic groups requires time and effort! And once groups are established and the students begin their work, it doesn’t mean that it will feel immediately successful. Just like any teamwork approach, groups take time to develop relationships, build trust, and establish healthy and productive routines. When groups change rapidly, even groups that are strategic, it makes it difficult to see the return on our investment. That’s why establishing strategic (purposeful to the context and task) and flexible groups can be a major win.
One easy approach to flexible grouping is to design Number, Color, Shape groups. With a little bit of planning, we can set up three types of group structures at once.
To establish flexible groups, consider three types of groups that need to be made:
Having students work in leveled pairs is an effective way to differentiate. By working with a partner, students can tackle more complex tasks, collaborate with a peer, or edit and revise their thinking as they complete an assignment. Students will also be able to develop more personal connections, which keeps them engaged and interested.
To set up numbered pairs, look at a class list and divide the total number of students in half. 30 students = 15 pairs. Then, begin matching students based on data — performance, reading levels, and personality can all be helpful data points to make matches. Once every student is in a pair, introduce the learning pairs by passing out numbered cards and invite students to find their match. It may be helpful to place numbers around the room so students know where to find their match, or create a class challenge to find partners without speaking.
Once established, keep these numbered pairs for an extended period of time. Consider 4 - 6 weeks for pairs, given that it will take a few work periods before students feel comfortable, and once the pairs are working, making changes to the partnerships can derail the momentum. If some pairs don’t work out as planned, make specific changes in those situations.
After students spend time working in pairs, their collaboration and communication skills will improve over time with their partners. We can take our differentiation to the next level by joining the numbered pairs into small groups of 4-5 students with similar ability levels.
Maybe you’ll combine groups 3 & 8 to create a square group, and groups 2 & 9 to become a circle group. Same shape groups will create leveled groupings that allow us to differentiate topics, products, processes, and text levels by assigning a specific task to each group based on their Zone of Proximal Development.
If we know that groups 3 & 8 are composed of students who are reading 2-3 grade levels below expectations, we can assign the square group a text that’s at their instructional reading level and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are assigned. If we know that groups 2 & 9 are composed of students who are reading at or above grade level, we can assign them a more challenging text on the same topic, and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are working on.
Same shape groups work well because after their discussion and group work, the class can come together to discuss the larger topic, without limiting the contributions of students with below-grade level reading skills.
Many — but not all! — learning goals are best accomplished by having students work in groups with peers on similar levels. When students only ever see examples of tasks and work products that reflect the same thing they would produce, they don’t have an opportunity to visualize how they can expand their thinking, reading, writing, or reasoning skills. By working with students in mixed ability (heterogeneous) groups, students of all different levels can participate in a jigsaw discussion or group projects. Mixed groups allow students to learn from one another, and play an individual role towards a shared goal.
We can create Color Groups using our Numbered Pairs and Same Shape groups as a starting point! Color Groups will be strategic, data-informed heterogeneous groups that can meet together consistently through a unit or term. To create the Color Groups, review the students in each Shape Group and begin distributing them evenly into Color Groups.
Example: We can take one student from the square group, one from the circle group, one from the diamonds, and one from the hearts, and place them into the Purple Group. Because we’re mixing and matching from the Same Shape groups, we’re guaranteed a mix of performance abilities in the Color Blend Groups.
Bringing it all together
Strategic grouping requires data-informed decision-making to create flexible groups of students who work collaboratively for a specific purpose.
By designing these three sets of groups at one time, you can maximize your planning and minimize chaos! No more numbering off from 1 - 4 around the room. No more wandering around to find a partner. No more kids sitting in the back because they don’t have a group. If each student received a card on color cardstock, with a printed number, cut out in a specific shape, they could receive multiple group assignments within seconds. And after each grouping has been established, they’ll begin to learn how to work together for a purpose in each grouping they experience.
BY ROBERTA LENGER KANG
As educators, we often see the main priority of in-person schooling as the development of academic knowledge and skills, and that priority has carried over to the online learning space. Students, however, typically view school as a way to be a part of their social community. Seeing and being seen by friends is a huge factor for student attendance, and even in-class engagement. The social-emotional component of school is identity forming; it's where students develop a sense of self beyond their families, and the close quarters of the in-person classroom organically enhance this experience. But when we’re not together in the same place (or we’re together, but we’re socially distanced or wearing masks), authentic opportunities for students to connect with one another disappear.
In addition to finding a peer group, establishing relationships, and making connections with other students, school is the place where students can make a healthy connection with a caring adult who isn't a member of their family. Many students, especially those who are young, feel a close connection to their teachers. They give gifts, share hugs and high fives — in their little lives, teachers may be some of the only non-family adults they know, and some of the only adults they can develop a relationship with independent of a parent or a sibling. In the transition to remote learning, the opportunities for this type of social-emotional support and connection have almost fully evaporated, even as schools have figured out ways to provide academic opportunities.
Activating social-emotional engagement
The three pillars of student engagement — academic, intellectual, and social-emotional — are about maximizing any opportunity that can help bring kids to class. Academic engagement, or even just showing up, can lead to meaningful intellectual engagement, and that, in turn, can lead to organic social and emotional community experiences that meet students’ needs. Even students who are struggling to sign in to class or struggling to find meaning in instructional activities can still be motivated to connect on a personal level.
What kind of social-emotional interactions do kids have? Think about the different types of organic connection points we find when school is in session, and then consider ways to match them with our online experiences.
Our hope is that students who haven't been "showing up" to school might show up to opportunities like these. If they do, it will refuel their energy and strengthen their social-emotional engagement with school, helping them to deepen personal connections that re-energize their sense of self. We can then leverage these connections to increase academic and intellectual engagement.
If we see student success in school as tied to anything — especially now — it is student engagement. Engagement is a highway towards students achieving their goals, and it is our job to build as many on-ramps as we can to capture all kinds of kids in all kinds of ways.
BY ROBERTA LENGER KANG
updated September 2021
Across the US, state tests are high-stakes exams that have become a driving force in educational policy, funding, accountability, curriculum development, and achievement for students, teachers, and school leaders.
No Child Left Behind and its counterpart, Race to the Top, were the national policies that dominated education spaces and shifted the focus from school and district autonomy to a culture of testing. While the Every Student Succeeds Act lessened some of the federal mandates on state testing programs, some individual states, like New York, have redoubled their efforts to use high-stakes assessment data as a way to evaluate education at every level. That is, until 2020 when COVID-19 systematically closed schools, reshaped instruction into hyper-customized blends of in-person and remote learning systems, and fundamentally prevented large groups of students from sitting in the same place, at the same time, to take a paper and pencil, fill-in-the-bubble test, like the generations of students who came before them.
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it isn’t — in its 200-year history, 2020 was the first year in which state tests were canceled. Now that schools around the country are coming back in person almost exclusively, we're looking at a school year that will formally assess student performance for accountability for the first time in almost three years.
What will you teach?
For the past twenty years, rigorous high-stakes state tests have become the leading influence on curriculum development and instructional priorities for most public schools. These structures for accountability send a direct message to educators — the only knowledge that is important is the knowledge that aligns with the test.
State tests are directly connected to the following evaluation and accountability processes:
Traditionally, almost the entire schooling experience, at every entry point, is connected to a test which reviews, monitors, and evaluates performance. Many schools have used this mandated external guidance as a way to vet their curriculum, solidify their unit and lesson plans, set the plan and pace for their instruction, and set specific goals for students. While, “you need to know this for the test” isn’t always a compelling reason for students to become interested in a specific topic, it has certainly been a driving force for teachers in the past. But without the guidance provided by the test, many educators were free to ask, what should I teach?
After getting over the initial shock of the tests’ absence, many teachers developed thoughtful, dynamic, and innovative curriculums to capture their students’ interest in the content, even while learning through difficult times. As the exams come back into focus, are we at risk of losing this personalized curriculum in order to return to the kill and drill of test-driven instruction?
Shifting your approach
What should we be teaching, and who should decide?
After two decades of test-informed planning and two years of freedom from exams, how do we decide on our next steps?
It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to take an honest look at who gets to set the agenda for learning, and in doing so, acknowledge the reality that while oversight is absolutely necessary in education, high-stakes testing is limited, and limiting. We have to be able to move from simply valuing the test, to testing what we value in each subject area — and teachers and local school communities should have a say in what that looks like.
Even as testing returns, there are three approaches to unit planning that we can use to frame instruction that is relevant, personalized to students' interests, and prepares them for future exams.
Considerations for policy makers
To our partners and colleagues who are decision-makers — big and small — we know you have a bird's-eye view of the now and the next. While we’re waiting, consider (or possibly reconsider) the enormous weight we’ve placed on a single day exam. Current policies give the test a monopoly on setting the values for an entire generation of students, and silence the voices of classroom teachers and school leaders who work directly with students on a daily basis.
These educators have insight into what we could be valuing across fields, and how student progress and performance can be reflected to increase student achievement. We have a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the role of high-stakes tests and shift the structure of accountability to one that incorporates true multiple measures, embraces diverse learning needs, and reflects the population of students we’re serving.
Reflecting on our values and focusing our instruction on what will help students get engaged, stay engaged, and keep coming back day after day is where we should invest our time and energy. After what we've been through, our instruction should look different than it did before. We have a unique opportunity to apply our new skills, refine what we've designed, and return to “normal” a bit more evolved than when the pandemic began.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
When we consider some features of a “good student”, we might think of someone who uses a quiet voice and raises their hand, or someone who comes to class organized, turns their work in on time, and always has a pen and paper. But one problem with the attributes on this short list is that none of them address learning! While some may enhance the learning process, most of these characteristics are actually about behavioral compliance. Which prompts me to ask: how much of in-person school is actually about compliance, rather than engaging in learning?
Compliance is the act of conforming, yielding, adhering to cultural norms, and cooperation or obedience. Compliance is focused on a mindset of having power over students, rather than empowering them. And whether we’ve recognized it or not, in-person learning is dominated by compliance-oriented structures which often mimic the behaviors of engagement. We structure how students enter, exit, and move throughout the building, we structure where they sit, how they sit, when they can go to the bathroom or eat food. Let me be clear — we need to structure many elements of student interaction in schools to create a safe and productive learning environment, but we often confuse the results of compliance with engagement. Or at least, we used to.
COVID changed all of that. As school doors closed and students’ laptops and tablets dinged with notifications, educators quickly saw how compliance gave us a false-positive on engagement. Without the same physical constructs, the social construct that motivates compliance disappeared, and one by one so did our students. Muted, video off, not present in the chat, missing synchronous calls, submitting late or incomplete online assignments — as students disengage from school during remote learning, educators are overwhelmed, disoriented, and discontented. This isn’t what anyone has signed up for.
But COVID hasn’t given us any problems we didn’t already have. So our challenge is to redesign what engagement looks like, what it feels like, and what it takes to get kids onboard — because engagement is everything.
Pillars of engagement
In our work across schools, we’ve come to see three pillars of student engagement: academic, intellectual, and social-emotional. While many attributes of these pillars are organically supported during in-person learning, they all must be explicitly pursued during times of remote or blended learning.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that for adults in the workplace, intrinsic motivation is nurtured by three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And in fact, the same is true for students — with scaffolding, of course! Working within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), learning is enhanced when kids can find Flow, which Csikszentmihalyi describes as a state in which people are so involved in what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. These three theories work together to illustrate the engagement that empowers students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning in all circumstances.
Pillar 1: Academic engagement
Academic engagement is the type of engagement that is required for students to complete their academic tasks. Tapping into executive functioning skills, academic engagement is all about helping kids to show up, stay with it, and stick the landing. Teachers know that kids can’t learn if they aren’t in school — the same is true if they aren’t logging on, can’t find their Zoom link, or lost their password, again. Many executive functioning skills like working memory, cognitive memory, and inhibitory control create major obstacles for students who want to do well, but have such a difficult time regulating their behavior that they aren’t able to hang in long enough to let the learning process work.
Especially during these challenging times — and, let’s be honest, during non-pandemic times as well — our students will be better off when we create deliberate structures, procedures, rituals, and routines to support them. To develop specific strategies, first consider what types executive functioning skills are students struggling with. Is it planning? Working memory? Time management? Is it self-control or initiative? If we can pinpoint where or how students are struggling, we can design aligned strategies to help them cultivate these skills.
Pillar 2: Intellectual engagement
Once students are showing up and staying with their classes, it better be worth their while! If they perceive our content to be dull, or find our assignments to be too easy or too hard, they won’t stick around for long. Creating opportunities for intellectual engagement is essential to reeling in students’ interests, gifts, and talents. Intrinsic or internal motivation is a very difficult thing to cultivate in someone else — but through personal challenges, purposeful tasks, and propelling curiosity, we can trick our students into learning while they’re having fun surfing the internet, or playing games.
First, we must think about ensuring that our assignments are differentiated and are creating a purposeful challenge for students at every level. When kids can hit that just right instructional challenge, they’ll keep working to reach their goal — just like they do in video games, sports, and other hobbies. We increase the likelihood that students will stay engaged when we can help them to make real-world connections, pick and choose elements of the assignments they complete, and when we propel their curiosity by creating opportunities for advancement, acknowledgement, and future challenges.
Pillar 3: Social-emotional engagement
Some say the term “social distancing” was a mistake, and that instead, it should have been “physically distant, socially connected”. The reality is that while educators view academics as a school’s main priority, socialization is a huge factor in what brings students to the school building everyday. Social-emotional connections seem to come naturally between students in peer groups as well as between students and teachers during in-person learning. But online, there are far fewer opportunities to bump into someone, stop by their classroom, or check in with them in the hallway. These are critical moments of social interaction. And for young children and adolescents, these moments aren’t just about making them feel happy or have fun — they actually help to shape identity.
As educators, we must consider strategic ways to increase student-to-teacher relationship-building outside of the virtual walls of the classroom, giving students a place to connect, ask questions, and share openly. Additionally, we can create opportunities for students to engage with other students without tackling academic concepts. Especially when the school year is marked by massive interruptions, mask wearing that covers up facial features, and months of isolation, students need moments where they can just be with other kids.
Engagement can seem elusive, especially when all of our interactions are mediated by the digital world, literally boxing us in. But we can’t let these challenges get the best of us. Our current circumstances can help reveal what true student engagement looks like, when not limited by the components of in-person compliance. As you explore new possibilities, bring a colleague along for the ride. It’s not just the students who are isolated and struggling to get and stay engaged. Each of these pillars applies to us as adults as well as to our students.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
In 2011, three researchers embarked on a journey to better understand how high-achieving schools around the world were preparing students for the 21st century. Their research took them to seven countries, hundreds of classrooms, and thousands of samples of student work. This seminal research had two significant results: first, the development of the original Global Capacities Framework — an outline of essential domains and capacities that outlines students’ needs in education for the next 100 years; and second, a dynamic, collaborative community of K-12 schools and university partners who appreciated the learning experience so much that they didn’t want the research to end. And that’s the story of how the Global Learning Alliance (GLA) came to be.
The founding members of the GLA — from the US, Finland and Singapore — formed the Governing Board, and the community grew to include delegations from China, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and South Africa. With roughly 15 partner organizations and 60 individual delegate members, the community comes together every two years to share promising practices, find connections on global issues, and deepen the research into developing 21st century skills through cross-cultural, project-based learning experiences. Professor Suzanne Choo of the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore — one of the original researchers and the leader of our student research projects — said she is hopeful that these types of deep project work can not only jump-start students’ academic skills, but can be a bridge for students to develop lifelong friendships.
The biennial Global Learning Alliance Summit was scheduled to kick off in New York City earlier this year, with a focus on fostering a sense of student belonging at school. Enter: Coronavirus. As we collaborated with colleagues around the world, we were cognizant that COVID-19 was going to have a major impact on the Asian delegations — but we were hopeful that everything would blow over in a few months, so we proceeded with our planning. (Spoiler alert: it did not blow over.) We began discussing the need to postpone the event on behalf of our partners who were being slammed with cases in late February and early March, and then COVID-19 hit home.
Rocked by COVID’s impact on schools, every country has continued to make critical decisions that affect not only students’ learning, but their lives. We’ve learned a lot from one another as we’ve continued our collaborations during this time, and ironically, we’re still talking about the responsibility of schools to create a sense of belonging and connection for students. In fact, this issue seems even more important during a time of disrupted learning. Our approach to implementing cross-cultural projects for students has had a major impact on the development of 21st century mindsets, (outlined in our Global Mindset Framework) that can support students to tackle challenges like COVID-19 in the future.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly interrupted the opportunities for the GLA to meet together in person, but it has also reaffirmed the value of cross-cultural collaborations for students, school leaders, and academic scholars. Teachers College Professor Ruth Vinz reflected, “At all levels, what these projects can do is help us to make connections. When we work together, we learn together.” Clarinda Choh, Director of Staff Development at Singapore’s Hwa Chong Institution, believes that cross-cultural projects build a deeper awareness on learning how students learn, helping students and educators to bring attention to their similarities.
Embracing 21st century mindsets
As we reflect on the Global Mindset Framework in light of the current health, economic, and political crisis, it seems more relevant than ever before. In particular, cultivating a Global Consciousness requires us to engage in Real-World Problem-Solving. In many ways, we are living through a case study of what to do — and what not to do —when approaching problem-solving on a global scale. Using current events, media sources, and government responses around the world will be instructive in how we are able to learn from these experiences and support students to develop the problem-solving and collaboration skills they need as they grow into adulthood.
At best, these are uncertain and unsettling times. Ironically, one of the 21st century skills that I have struggled with, Appreciating Ambiguity, is the one that’s most needed right now. We are learning to shift our mindsets to hold multiple truths: these are very difficult times, and we don’t know what the long lasting impact will be. In times of great uncertainty, there are opportunities for deep learning, powerful collaborations, and inspiring innovations. We don’t yet know when to expect the end of this global crisis we’re in, but we do know that the best way to get through it is together.
That being said, one of the Framework’s skills I’m most inspired by right now is the ability to Imagine. Especially when walking in uncharted territory, it is so easy to become overwhelmed by the pressures and fears within each day. It’s too easy to focus on what should be, rather than on what is. But when we begin to imagine, when we begin to envision what has yet to become, the world of possibilities opens up before us.