From the Principal's Office: 6 Practices for Creating a 21st Century Engaging Classroom

“Teachers who are willing to experiment and take risks on behalf of kids are in a much better position, regardless of their age, to meet their students where they are, and my experience is that students appreciate the effort.” Ron Nash, From Seatwork to Feetwork: Engaging Students in Their Own Learning

A new school year is upon us, and the decisions we are making now as educational leaders and classroom teachers will determine whether our students are engaged learners, or are passive learners. In other words, our decisions now will determine whether education is something we do to our students or whether education is something into which we actively engage them. The time for "Planning for Student Engagement" is now.

As you and your teachers ponder questions like:

  • How do I arrange my classroom or classrooms this year?
  • What kinds of technologies will I use?
  • What materials will I use?

Here are some practices for moving your students from active to passive learning mode in the 2013-2014 school-year.

1. Rearrange your classroom to facilitate collaboration and cooperation, not conformity and standardized learning. How a classroom is arranged communicates to students what they are expected to do. It screams loudly to them if desks are arranged in rows in front of teacher’s desk, “I am the teacher, the imparter of all knowledge and wisdom, and you are my students, the receptacles of all my knowledge.” Take the time before school starts to really ponder your classroom arrangement. If you want student interaction and student-driven learning, you may want to move your teacher desk out into the hall (Just kidding. I know the fire marshal would have a fit). With your classroom arrangement, purposefully create places for collaboration and talk.

2. Change your mindset from “curriculum or content coverage” to a mindset that engages students in in-depth, relevant learning. In a test-driven school culture, it is easier to “cover content” rather than really examine what you are asking students to do and have them actively engage that content. Covering content means just that, and fosters a teaching attitude that says, "Well, I taught it; it's the kids responsibility to learn it." The trouble with that thinking is clear: no, you didn't really teach it. You covered it. Engaging students in content deeply means teaching that asks students to apply that content in some deep and meaningful way. The old factory maxim that puts students in the role of recipients of knowledge rarely is engaging anymore. Take on the mindset of engaging students in learning not covering content standards.

3. Take instructional risks this year. Don’t sacrifice creativity and innovation to obtain orderliness and conformity. Instructional risks, as Ron Nash aptly points out, are really appreciated by students. They are excited when teachers try new ways of teaching and learning, and teachers who try new ways of instruction are excited too. Recharge your classroom and your students by trying instructional methodology and pedagogy you haven’t done before. It will re-energize your teaching and your classrooms.

4. Accept that real student engagement and student learning is most often messy and chaotic. Places where students are actually engage in learning are often noisy places. At first glance, these chaotic and messy classrooms and schools don’t appear to foster true learning, especially if you view them through the lens of 20th century, factory-model education system. Laughter and loud talking are not necessarily a sign of off task behavior. Students who are engaged make a lot of noise. Don’t dampen their excitement by insisting on silence or sitting in seats. Let the messiness of true student engagement begin on the first day. Embrace the chaos and messy nature of student engagement.

5. Choose your tech tools wisely. Choose the tools that get students engaged in the learning you want them to engage in. Using technology because it allows students to engage content in new and novel and effective ways means you look for the tools that fit the kinds of learning you want students to do. Having students “Do PowerPoints” is often not an engaging activity by itself anymore, and having to sit through someone flitting through slides in monologue is even less so. Choose your tech with a eye to risk and to what you want your students to do with that tech.

6. Pay attention to relationships. Students behave better for teachers that care about them, period. They are more engaged in the learning and are more involved in classroom activities. Teachers who focus on relationships with students "teach students not math, or science, or social studies." Take some time this year to build solid relationships with your students. Doing so creates a climate of safety where risk-taking and mistake-making are acceptable.

As you plan out your school year, there are decisions that will greatly have an affect on whether your classrooms are places of engagement or places of boredom and passive learning. Perhaps these six classroom practices will help you transform your classroom into true 21st century classrooms where student engagement is the rule.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.