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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Nine Strategies for Promoting Student Engagement

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 07, 2021 18 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The question-of-the-week is:

Some research suggests that as students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease. How can schools combat this trend?

Part One‘s contributors were Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, and Matt Renwick. Janice was also a guest on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Scott Bayer, Amanda Lescas, Ryan Huels, and Joy Hamm shared their thoughts.

Today, Tonia Gibson, Katie Shenk, Libby Woodfin, Jayson W. Richardson, and Luiza Mureseanu offer their observations.

‘At the core are student/teacher relationships’

Tonia Gibson, a managing consultant at McREL International, is a former Australian teacher and school leader. At McREL, she focuses on helping schools use an inside-out, curiosity-based approach to develop sustainable and continuous improvement:

To truly answer this question, we need to understand what student engagement is. For me, student engagement is closely linked to motivation; both intrinsic and extrinsic factors play a role in how interested students are at school.

We also know that student motivation tends to decrease as students move through and up grade levels. Most students in 2nd grade appear happy to be at school and in most classrooms look to be highly engaged in learning, whereas the scene in some 10th grade classrooms might look very different, with students staring at their phones or listening to music through hidden ear pods. A Gallup survey of some 500,000 students found that roughly 8 in 10 elementary students felt “engaged” in school—that is, attentive, curious, and optimistic about their learning—yet by high school, that number had plummeted to just 4 in 10.

Elementary teachers are able to use a myriad of strategies that are almost guaranteed to engage students in learning. Short demonstrations in science or even a brainteaser can spark a child’s curiosity about a topic. Most K–5 students willingly and openly ask questions of their teachers and each other when they need further clarification or help.

Middle school teachers will probably paint a very different picture. Student engagement appears to decrease due to a number of observable factors, including the shift in teacher/student relationships, increased academic demands, and, not to be dismissed, the biological and social changes that students are navigating.

Most high school teachers will tell you that student engagement at this level can (mostly) be linked to a student’s personal motivations about their future life away from or after high school. Students might be motivated to get good grades so that they can enter higher education, or they may be aiming for a technical college or career and choose their pathway accordingly. But then there are also students who seem disengaged at school for reasons that are harder to address, like homelessness, generational poverty, or lack of self-belief or confidence that they can succeed.

In light of all of this, what teachers really need to master is knowing and understanding what motivates their students—in and out of school. Knowing your students and their interests can help teachers become more intentional when planning for learning. Pairing that knowledge with a knowledge of which research-supported, high-impact strategies will be most effective with your students can help teachers create classroom environments where students display increased interest, motivation, and engagement in learning.

At the core are student/teacher relationships. Engaging students is not about being entertaining, providing loads of experiments that blow up, or having a colorful slide show to appeal to students who love screen time. Great teachers know that before their students can learn, they need to build positive relationships and shared understandings about what the purpose of school (or their class) is, and work with students to set realistic personal goals that help them develop and internalize their purpose for being at school.

Once these shared expectations and understandings have been established, teachers should be savvy in ensuring they provide purposeful, transparent, and engaging learning opportunities for students. Some excellent practices teachers should consider are:

Ensure clarity and purpose for student learning. For students to be engaged and motivated to learn, they need to know what they are learning, why it is important, and how to be successful. Teachers should be mindful to ensure that their narrative around the “why” is crafted to connect with the students in front of them. If the purpose for the learning is merely grades, you might lose some students. But if it’s about getting a good grade and understanding and applying the learning to a real-world problem, then you’re engaging the whole class.

Create challenging learning tasks. Challenging learning tasks aren’t just lists of “hard” problems or the teacher setting high expectations. Learning tasks and activities that scaffold student learning, connect to the real world and/or the students’ experiences, and challenge students to use what they know to solve a problem or apply their knowledge to a new task will always be more engaging than assigning pages and pages of practice problems to prepare for a test.

Set up classroom structures that allow students to learn with and from each other. Learning is primarily a social activity. Babies learn to talk by listening and mimicking the people around them, while young children learn how to hit a baseball or skate by watching and getting feedback from others. Student should have the same opportunities at school. Students at your school may come from backgrounds where storytelling is a powerful way to learn. Or using a digital platform to create virtual learning communities where students can chat and share ideas online may be a way to encourage collaboration outside of our regular turn-and-talk classroom routines.


‘The Four Ts’

Katie Shenk is a lead curriculum designer for EL Education. Libby Woodfin is the director of publications for EL Education and an author of Learning That Lasts: Challenging, Engaging and Empowering Students with Deeper Instruction:

Learning is naturally engaging. When students begin kindergarten, when they learn to read and write, when numbers fall into place for them for the first time, it is exciting. Learning is fun!

But what happens after the primary grades? Students hang onto their joy for a while, but for many, it starts to slip as 4th or 5th grade rolls around. And middle school is a notoriously joyless time for far too many students. It doesn’t mean that all kids end up hating school (though some will), but the source of students’ engagement with school often changes.

Sometimes “achievement” in a traditional sense—grades, accolades from teachers or family members—is what engages students. Sometimes it’s social interactions. But some students will struggle in school and, as a result, are likely to disengage on some level. This may happen for students because learning is hard and their teachers have not found the right way to meet their needs, or because they feel that they don’t belong, that school is not a place where they fit in or where they can succeed.

The problem for educators to solve as students get older is to ensure that school remains a place of learning, not just of schooling. Students may go through the paces of school—doing their homework, answering questions in class—but that’s not necessarily learning and students may become more and more disengaged as they experience more schooling and less authentic learning. Students (even middle schoolers!) can still engage deeply with school, but they need authentic opportunities to learn deeply.

Designing Curriculum with the Four Ts

We use a simple framework called the Four Ts to consider how to combine topics, tasks, targets, and texts in a way that will truly engage students with their learning.

  • The TOPIC teaches standards through real-world issues, original research, primary-source documents, and the opportunity to engage with the community, and they lend themselves to the creation of authentic tasks/products.
  • The TASK gives students the opportunity to address authentic needs and an authentic audience related to the topic.
  • Standards-aligned learning TARGETS are contextualized to the topic; they prepare students for and guide the task and ensure proper, deep analysis of the text.
  • A worthy TEXT is chosen judiciously to ensure that it will help students build world knowledge, master specific standards, and learn about the topic.

Let’s look at a few examples of the Fours Ts in action. Note that one of the key themes in these examples is that students are engaged in purposeful work, and, because of that, they are motivated to dig in to complex and rigorous learning. They are engaged.

(We urge you to watch the accompanying videos, which tell each story in detail.)

Living History: 4th and 5th Grades

This video tells the story of 4th and 5th grade students at Silverton School in Silverton, Colo., who engaged in a semester-long study of local Chinese American history at the turn of the 20th century. Students created a new exhibit at their local history museum and rebuilt a local Chinese garden. This is a powerful example of students learning history “beyond the textbook” and putting their learning to use to make their community better. Students were engaged deeply because their learning had purpose and, as one student shared, “we had to learn with our heads and our hearts.”

Their teacher expertly wove together the Four Ts to design a compelling project from start to finish. Her framing of the topic as a “history mystery” piqued students’ curiosity out of the gate and her innovative use of texts included epitaphs from the local cemetery, museum gallery texts, and historical newspapers. Key literacy standards related to reading and synthesizing informational texts, writing informational texts, and speaking with and listening to experts and museum guests anchored the learning targets. The culminating task—the museum exhibit and garden—honored the history of the local community.

Community Faces: 6th Grade

This video features 6th graders from Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London, Conn., working to break stereotypes associated with the label “immigrant” by telling the human story of immigration. Earning widespread local and national media coverage, these students produced a beautiful book filled with original photography and stories from people in their community who immigrated to the United States. Students spoke at the state Capitol and toured the Northeast with an exhibit of their learning. These students were motivated to learn deeply and do their best because they were working on behalf of immigrants in their community and presenting their work to multiple audiences.

This project is a beautiful example of the Four Ts in action. The topic engaged students in a real-world, contemporary issue that impacted their community and allowed them to do authentic, primary research with community members. Engagement in the task was high as students interviewed local immigrants and learned photography and interviewing skills from experts. Learning targets were standards-aligned and interdisciplinary, and the project incorporated work from all subject areas, including math. Students were eager to dig into complex texts, including primary texts, in order to prepare for their interviews and produce high-quality work for an authentic audience.

The Successes, Challenges, and Possibilities of Policing in the United States: 12th Grade

This video features seniors at Codman Academy in Boston preparing to write a research paper analyzing a critical component of policing in America. Their preparation involves reading a series of case studies and primary-source texts, as well as structured academic discussions, about policing practices in a variety of communities around the U.S. Their primary texts are The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” The beauty of the Four Ts in this video is the way that they weave together to give students access to a challenging text; those access points serve to engage students deeply in their learning.

The topic of policing in America is one that impacts the lives of the students in this class every day. This compelling topic, combined with a powerful primary-source text (the Ferguson report) inspires students to read and think critically. The task is a research paper, which is scaffolded by a series of academic discussions in which students grapple with their readings and analysis. Due to the nature of the text, which is incredibly dense, the teacher has designed lessons to ensure that students will be able to access it, make meaning from it, and learn from it. She has also designed tools for the students, such as note-catchers, that require them to capture evidence from the text, which they can use in their analysis. This is a key college- and career-ready skill aligned to standards and learning targets.


Measuring the wrong things

Jayson W. Richardson is a professor at the University of Denver and the department chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the Morgridge College of Education. He has written over 100 scholarly articles, books chapters, and books focusing on technology, leadership, and change including a new book on Bringing Innovative Practices to Your School:

School leaders often worry about issues such as discipline, dropout rates, achievement, and academic progression. These are often viewed as the traditional measures of a student’s (and school’s) success. But these measures do not get at what might be the most problematic issue. These forward-facing measures are simply indicative of a deeper issue: student engagement. As such, efforts to address student engagement in P-12 schools, are often blurred by competing accountability measures.

Gallup (2016) conducted a survey of nearly 1 million students across the United States. They found that starting at 5th grade, 74 percent of students reported to being engaged in school. By the 12th grade, only 34 percent of students reported being engaged in school. These are alarming numbers given that by the time students leave our schools, nearly 7 out of 10 are generally disengaged in the learning process.

Looking at the Gallup (2016) data deeper, it is clear that the issue of a lack of engagement is indeed dire. Sixty percent of 5th graders reported learning something interesting in school in the past 7 days. That level drops to 33 percent by the 12th grade. When students were asked if they have fun at school, 47 percent of 5th grades and just 20 percent of 12th grades said yes. From these data, it is clear that we have more than half of our 5th graders not having fun at schools and 4 out of 10 not even learning something interesting in school! By the time that student is ready to tackle the world, she spends 67 percent of the time not learning anything interesting in school and 80 percent of her time not having any fun.

It is the old adage of the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It is often harder to measure engagement so we measure academics, we measure dropouts, we measure attendance, we measure discipline, and so on. But deficiencies in these measures are likely a result of the majority of students being disengaged in their education. Nevertheless, recent research makes it clear that student engagement is significantly and positively linked to achievement, discipline, and behaviors. It is time we refocus our efforts on engaging students in learning.

COVID-19 has brought with it an array of schooling challenges around organizational change. We cannot overlook that. Some challenges are structural (e.g., devices, learning platforms, and internet access), some are human resources (e.g., teacher training), some are political (e.g., state policies and local technology-use policies), and yet others are symbolic (e.g., messaging coming from leaders about emergency remote learning). As leaders of schools in uncertain times where there is no normal, we must focus on the bigger picture. We must resist the urge to fix problems without focusing on the core issue: increasing student engagement. By putting students first, we might likely find innovative ways to “educate” students that we have never thought of before. In this time of the pandemic, let’s invent more engaging student experiences that might propel wholesale rethinking of what schooling can be.


Supporting young adults

Luiza Mureseanu is an instructional resource teacher, K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel DSB, Ontario, with over 17 years of teaching middle and high school students in Canada and Romania. She believes that all English-learners will be successful in schools that cultivate culturally and linguistically responsive practices:

Schools need to prepare a different approach in providing instructional support for older (18+) students using experiential learning and age-relevant curriculum. Older students naturally have a different level of interest in attending school, and their level of performance changes because their life priorities change.

Often, they are breadwinners for the household; having multiple jobs or even taking care of younger siblings forces them to slow down in their schooling. In fact, family circumstances or a complicated history of immigration often determines that they need to spend longer time in school to finish their credits. As a secondary school teacher, I know when my students are late to class or tired because of jobs or family commitments.

It is true that research indicates the correlation between getting older and the decreasing of school engagement, but there is no similar correlation between getting older and abandoning the interest in finishing school. In fact, when asked, older students indicate their desire to get their diploma. Therefore, schools need flexible programs to accommodate the learner, including modified timetable and relevant courses.

For example, some of the schools with larger clusters of older learners could provide alternate starting time in the morning. The model is not entirely new as some of the high schools with large hospitality and tech programs have that option already, and it works best for students who have a co-op course, a dual credit, or a workplace component on their timetable.

Another important step schools need to take will be to provide courses that are of interest for older students—particularly the elective courses. For example, some financial-literacy courses, family economics, or career courses need to be available for the older group. They should be provided with an opportunity to have some form of workplace component in their education and to get them involved in projects with community or local businesses.

Schools definitely need to provide more specific supports for this group. Ironically, students could attend high school in Ontario, Canada, until they are 21. In reality, there are just a few students who will remain in a regular day school after the age of 18. They either go to a continuing education program, sometime later in life, or drop out of school. Some groups are particularly affected—ELLs with a refugee background, students living below the poverty line, students with exceptionalities. School districts have the data that shows this trend, and they must prioritize the needs of this group.


Thanks to Tonia, Katie, Libby, Jayson, and Luiza for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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