Why It’s Easy To Ignore Something Proven to Create 30 Times More Engagement

by Paul Haluszczak

Have you ever noticed how often education conversations are about what’s wrong rather than what’s strong with our learning communities?

Local and national headlines fill our social media and email feeds with apocalyptic warnings like:

  • “Learning loss will be a lasting legacy of COVID safetyism”
  • “Record levels of teacher burnout and resignations”
  • “Stress and short tempers: Schools struggle with behavior as students return”

What if we changed the conversation and took stock of what drives academic achievement and student well-being?

Research shows that learners are 30 times more engaged when they feel known and they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future.

Simply put, knowing our learners is a force multiplier—a factor or a combination of factors that gives us the ability to accomplish greater feats than without it.

When we see something that powerful, “30 times more engaged,” it begs the question: Why wouldn’t knowing our learners and getting them excited about the future be our number one priority in our learning communities?

The answer is rather simple. The upfront investment required to create an environment where knowing our learners is prioritized over things like test scores, content delivery, and behavioral compliance is large.

Knowing our learners is not a prioritized or even stated outcome of the conventional education system’s design. In fact, knowing our learners is antithetical to the system’s design given it’s one-size-fits-all credo.

The moment we begin learning a little more about each learner in our communities is the moment we learn that the conventional system’s design is actively working to limit the success of every child.

Let’s look at a simple example.

Bobbi is 10 years old and just shared that she attended a sailboat race with her mother over the weekend. She was fascinated by the design of the sailboats, the teamwork required to maximize the boat’s speed, and the strategic conversations happening all around her by other onlookers.

Her excitement is undeniable. How will this excitement be translated into her learning experiences this week?

In a conventional learning environment, the excitement will quickly deteriorate in the face of rigid curriculum and pacing requirements. It’s great to hear Bobbi had such a good time, but it’s time for all of us to read Holes by Louis Sachar and then to learn about the asteroid belt.

It’s important to note that neither Holes nor the asteroid belt are bad things to engage with. They simply aren’t relevant to a learner who just shared her fascination about sailboat racing and therefore stumps whatever value might be contained within each of those learning experiences.

Now, let’s look at what might happen in a strengths-based learning environment that celebrates the individual interests of every learner.

In this environment, an educator can invite Bobbi to consider how becoming a strong mathematician helps sailboat racers go as fast as possible, encourage Bobbi to begin reading about sailboat racing or sailboat building, and welcome Bobbi to write a letter to a local sailboat racing team expressing her fascination and seeing if she can attend one of their training sessions.

Math, reading, writing. Sounds like foundational learning doesn’t it? It’s just wrapped in a context that is meaningful to the individual learner. And because this learner feels known and has been inspired to dive into her newfound interest, her engagement goes through the roof.

To have this type of learning be commonplace throughout an entire school or district requires a cultural shift, which can feel like an enormous undertaking if you aren’t in a position of power to get the wheels in motion.

But don’t underestimate the power of possibility. An individual teacher, by taking ownership in getting to know each of their learners and getting them excited about the future, will quickly be known as that classroom where “problem kids” aren’t problems, “quiet kids” bust out of their shells, and “bored kids” are teeming with excitement.

All it takes is one other teacher to wonder how they can make a similar impact. With two examples showcasing the value of knowing our learners, it becomes almost impossible to ignore and the dominoes will begin to fall.

Getting to know your learners is a daily commitment that can happen in formal and informal ways. To catalyze your efforts, Thrively has a free, evidence-based strengths assessment that reveals the top five strengths of every learner.

With this information at your fingertips, you will immediately have an unlimited supply of conversation starters for each and every learner. You will be able to make their strengths visible, which will inevitably make them proud of their unique identities and get them excited about how they can utilize those strengths at school and outside it.

The only question is: Are you ready to ask what’s strong with your students?