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Opinion Blog

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

Student Engagement Can Be Elusive. Here’s How to Help

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 26, 2023 15 min read
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Today’s post continues a series on student motivation, with educators sharing even more tips!

Project-Based Learning

Mike Kaechele is a middle school teacher and PBL consultant who believes in student-centered learning that gives kids authentic opportunities to do real work with local community partners. His recent book, Pulse of PBL: Cultivating Equity Through Social Emotional Learning, demonstrates how to develop ALL students’ SEL skills through a PBL framework:

Daniel Pink, in his bestselling book Drive, states the key to intrinsic motivation is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I would argue that in education, the order matters. You can’t start with full autonomy (often called voice and choice) or you might end up with anarchy. The majority of students will not voluntarily choose to learn most content standards. First, the teacher needs to connect their content to a relevant purpose. The framework that I wield to create meaning for students is project-based learning (PBL).

Every PBL project begins with an entry event to activate student thinking and to illustrate how the class content is relevant in the world. An entry event
could be an engaging video, science experiment, a simulation, fascinating guest speaker, reading a picture book, or field work where students participate in active learning. Effective entry events combine cognitive and empathetic “hooks” to connect students to content. They answer the age-old student question, “When are we ever going to use this?” before students can even ask it.

Once students have a strong purpose from the entry event, I give them voice and choice wherever appropriate in the project. At different times, this looks like choosing who they work with, what aspect of a problem to focus on, or what their final product will be. PBL emphasizes creativity and problem-solving throughout the process. Be mindful that too much choice for students unfamiliar with PBL can be paralyzing. It is important to balance freedom and structure for student success. Since I develop relationships with my students and am aware of their hobbies and passions, I often suggest avenues that link my content to their interests.

For example, when teaching American history, I had two boys who were obsessed with the outdoors, botany, and woodsmanship. One of them had even built a wigwam at his house. For each project, I steered them to consider the environmental impact or the consequences on Native Americans, honoring their expertise on these important subtopics.

Alongside entry events, another aspect of PBL that motivates students is partnerships with the local community. A compelling project requires students to address local problems through inquiry, research, and interviews in their neighborhood. Young people interact with diverse individuals and organizations to analyze multiple perspectives on the local impact of their studied problem. Many PBL projects utilize service learning or volunteering to improve an issue in the community. Service learning motivates students because their work has a valid purpose beyond the teacher’s recycling bin.

Sometimes, I still have a student who seems disinterested in my project even though the rest of the class is motivated. One approach that has worked for me is to design a project personalized with that one particular student in mind. Just like curb cuts in a sidewalk, originally designed for wheelchairs, benefit many other users such as bicyclists, skateboards, strollers, and rollerbladers, designing your project with one hard to reach learner in mind benefits all students.

I had some students who were not very passionate about any history topics but were engrossed with making movies, from writing to acting to directing and set design. I started including videos as a final product option, and those students enthusiastically recorded our content to tell its story. Other students enjoyed their work and started to choose video options, too.

Project-based learning provides the purpose and opportunity that motivates students to impact their local community and the world.


‘Sense Making’

Eric Richard’s book Grafted Writing helps language educators facilitate language acquisition with students through reading and writing.

Pat Brown’s Instructional Sequence Matters National Science Teaching Association book series provides a theoretical backing for why sequence matters:

All students come to school as knowers even before being taught anything and come to our classes with unique assets such as their everyday experiences interacting with the natural world, curiosities, interests, cultures, and abilities. We can leverage these assets to understand their incoming ideas better and use them to create everyday classroom experiences that use experiential learning for sense making. Viewing learning as sense making is essential in a technology-driven, global economy where critical thinking and problem-solving are necessary.

While sense making is critical, the process can be challenging for students if they play a more passive role in the classroom. Shifting from passive to active student experiences requires classroom environments that play a supportive role. Shifting to more active learning requires a simultaneous focus on students’ emotions, motivations, attitudes, beliefs, and cognition, which develop in parallel streams. You may not have considered the role of emotions on cognition and vice versa.

What Does the Research Tell Us About Cognition and Emotions?

We know from the neurosciences that all learning begins as sensory information and what comes into the brain is immediately filtered to different structures of the brain called the “thinking brain” and “reactive brain” (McTighe and Willis 2019). For example, instructional practices that engage student thinking, allow them to make predictions that draw on firsthand experiences, and encourage students to view learning as a developmental process (thinking and reflecting on developing understanding) promote a feeling of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation to continue the desired response and sent to the “thinking brain.”

Conversely, instructional practices that create a sense of stress for students (anxiety related to speaking in front of peers, fear of being incorrect, worry about demands of course/school) put the brain in survival mode and diverted to what has been called the “reactive brain.”

A popular theory in world-language education elaborates on the notion of a reactive brain to suggest that students screen information based on the potential stresses associated with learning. The “affective filter” hypothesis (See Stephen Krashen) suggests that language learning is mediated by students’ perception of the learning environment and whether the risk of exposing an idea through communication, either spoken or written, is worth the reward.

The implications behind the “thinking and reactive brain” and the “affective filter” can be used in lesson and curriculum design to enhance our instruction.

Big Idea 1: Instructional sequence is key in supporting student’s taking intellectual risks.

One contemporary approach that promotes sense making based on lived experiences is the PSOE (Predict, Share, Observe, and Explain). The Predict stage engages students’ interest in the lesson and identifies their initial ideas and experiences (including misconceptions). Activities, questions, and problems stimulate student ideas based on prior experiences and focus on specific topics. Predictions are never graded. Teachers emphasize that regardless of the accuracy of a prediction, all students will come to a more sophisticated understanding from their classroom interactions.

Next, the Share phase offers students the chance to articulate their thinking and reasoning with their peers. The Share phase is a chance for students to refine their understanding through conversation. Then, the Observe stage presents students with firsthand experiences and discussions centered around their observations, data, or other evidence.

During the Observe stage, activities are performed.

Finally, the Explain stage allows students to generate ideas based on firsthand experiences. After students have explained concepts in their way, teachers try introducing new terms and ideas. The teacher’s explanation and introduction of new ideas become partially rich experiences if they occur in light of students’ firsthand experiences. While the names of the phases help teachers from a lesson-design standpoint, in practice, students move seamlessly from activity to activity.

Big Idea 2: Productive discourse and writing requires a balance between old and new ideas and challenging oneself to learn from experiences.

Students need to learn that they are not alone in the process and are part of a more prominent culture, their classroom, that grows based on the collective work of each other. With this in mind, educators must consider the role of productive discourse and writing in current classroom practices. Educators must also recognize the importance of these skills as significant factors in students’ development. However, in today’s classroom, the approach to these skills requires new ideas that find themselves in balance with established ideas. When students find writing and discourse dull, mechanical, uninteresting, and even laborious, these skills suffer. Educators must apply balanced ideas that help make these skills compelling, engaging, collaborative, and accessible to the students. Students also need meaning, significance, and variation to acquire and retain these skills.

Moreover, teachers must not underestimate the need to support students through the process of improving their writing and discourse abilities. When activities prove to be too difficult for students, their affective filter rises and inhibits the educational and acquisition process. Students’ brains will move into the reactive mode, and this can lead to frustration and disengagement.

Conversely, when educators implement ideas that allow students to grow in confidence and students are able to more freely engage and share their own thoughts and ideas, the affective filter lowers, and discourse and writing become enjoyable and productive. This results in students becoming more comfortable with these skills and wanting to engage, collaborate, and share in the classroom.


‘Be Yourself’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

True internal motivation is a real challenge for teachers to nurture in their students. Some students come ready with an enthusiasm to learn already in place, and others need help from a teacher. Below are ideas I have used to engage my high school students.

Rewards - Give them immediate and worthwhile feedback. A final grade in a high school class 10 weeks from now is not going to motivate a challenged student. Put in layers of rewards that are short term and longer term.

Here are some rewards I have used: positive calls to parent/guardian, paper notes letting them know I have noticed them doing something good, encouraging messages in Google Classroom, and messages to coaches or other adults important to the student. I have also used behavior contracts written for individual students spelling out expected behaviors and a rewards menu including free time or time to use their phone. I have held raffles for students who put away their phones. Prizes included gift cards, no-homework coupons, and pizza parties. It means something for them to see a teacher trying to help them demonstrate the behaviors you know are key to their success.

Choice - Create a student-centered classroom where choice and agency are a priority. Let them have a say in the classroom. When my aide/paraprofessional retired in November, I was dreading not having her help. But it opened up the opportunity for me to depend more on students, and they stepped up to the challenge. Passing out papers, helping peers, and running errands are some of the jobs my students did. Together, we were building a community where we were all needed and we depended on each other.

Go Light on Rules - Don’t be a heavy disciplinarian. Don’t let them see you get all bent out of shape by their negative behavior. Remind them about the core requirements for your classroom but don’t get caught up in the “my way or the highway” philosophy. Make sure you have 1-4 things that are nonnegotiable in your classroom. Things like safety (both physical and emotional), learning, and growth are mine.

Be Yourself - Let them get to know you and your weaknesses. Be humble. If they see you being flawed and OK with it, then they might be more likely to share their weakness and won’t participate in negative behavior. This behavior may be a way for them to hide and deflect things about themselves they are embarrassed or ashamed about.

Remember They Are Children - Even if your student is 6-feet tall and 17-years-old, they are still a child. They know very little about how the world works. Also, their lived experience may be very different from yours. A student who may seem, from a teacher’s perspective, to be rude and disrespectful may be using the skills they have learned to survive in a world where adults cannot be trusted. They may have learned to challenge adults to protect themselves or their younger siblings.

Get to Know Them - Ask their other teachers what they like or what their experience has been with the student. Get to know their parents and home life. Take a genuine and unique interest in them. Believe in them and find something good and special about them. It might be a challenge to identify a positive for some students, but it is key to knowing who they are and what will motivate them.

Small Steps - Don’t expect a student who is motivated to look the same way you look when you are motivated. A student who is only skipping your class once a week instead of every day is an improvement in their motivation. Take that as an improvement and go with it. Keep doing what you are doing.

Most of All, Don’t Give Up - A teacher will try a couple of these ideas and give up thinking a student can’t be motivated. Keep trying to motivate students who seem the most disengaged and most unreachable. All these ideas will create a positive classroom environment for all students to reach their potential and do their best.


Thanks to Mike, Eric, Pat, and Ann for contributing their thoughts.

This is the fifth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.

The question of the week is:

What strategies have you used to create classroom conditions where students were more likely to motivate themselves, including those who didn’t initially seem very engaged?

Chandra Shaw, Irina McGrath, Meg Riordan, and Andrew Sharos kicked off this series.

Chandra, Irina, Meg, and Andrew were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, I shared an excerpt from my new book, The Student Motivation Handbook.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Mary K. Tedrow, and Valerie King offered their suggestions.

In Part Four, Whitney Emke and Laura Robb wrote their responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

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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