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

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?

Human Potential is Limitless

Human Potential is Limitless. We know this to be true. We know it because we feel a surge of adrenaline that covers our bodies in goosebumps when watching humans attempt the seemingly impossible. We root for the underdog because we know what it feels like to be a David up against a Goliath, and, when we prevail, we get a nice ride along the dopamine superhighway–and it feels good. What if you never felt those goosebumps or that dopamine surge? What if it were easier to wear off the jagged edges of high expectations for yourself and live safely? What if experience told you that it made more sense to hide than to proclaim: This is me! This is me, and I am trying! 

What fosters this sense of agency and positive learning identity that allows for such emphatic proclamations? At the core, it is the relationship that teachers have with their students. When students don’t just feel but have evidence of being known and valued they feel safe, and safety is the nutrient-rich soil from which all robust and healthy growth emerges. As with any relationship, interactions have to be rooted in true interest and concern and they have to be reciprocal–human being to human being, rather than keeper of knowledge to seeker of knowledge. 

Years ago, when I was a teacher in a Title 1 school in Los Angeles, my go-to strategy was Shared Inquiry. What I discovered was that my role wasn’t to guide my students to achieve a particular understanding of a text, but to grow their curiosity through my authentic curiosity about their perspective. I would encourage them to share where their ideas had come from and to say more, delve more deeply. With each inquiry, a student’s confidence would grow. It was magic, and it was so simple: All I had to do was make the time to ask. Not so easy though, right?

So much is expected of our educators today because we know so much more about everything from neuroscience to the long-term effects of trauma. Each child brings a range of experiences to the classroom. What can teachers do when they carry large rosters or serve students with wildly varying needs? Consider for a moment Dr. Edith Eger’s question: “How do you spell love?” It’s a four-letter word, she reminds us. Ready? “It’s spelled t-i-m-e,” she says. How do teachers find time in a day that requires so much of them? With the 1,500 decisions that teachers make a day, where do they find the time to authentically inquire, build meaningful relationships, and engender trust? 

Teachers, by the very nature of their work, have become models of efficiency. Watch your colleagues standing at the physical or virtual door, taking the time to look in each person’s eyes and welcome them. Teachers who use collaboration interfaces like Thrively might note how a group member brought a new idea to the team. “Something Miguel said yesterday inspired me to share this article with your group.” Or, “I was curious about an idea that Jazmine shared and I wanted to ask the group to explore that today.” These interactions only take a moment, but they are evidence of care, concern and genuine interest, which are all essential elements of trust. 

A culture of trust provides a solid foundation upon which all learning is built. Imagine a space where a student knows that she can be vulnerable, make wild hypotheses, color outside the lines figuratively and literally, push boundaries, feel those goosebumps that attend exploring the unknown, feel her pulse quicken, and get the dopamine surge that comes when her curiosity is encouraged. 

We can create a place of limitless possibility when we make the time ignite our own sense of wonderment and awe about the humans sitting right in front of us. What are their strengths, what are their dreams and aspirations, what makes them laugh, what makes them think? Everyone deserves to feel the excitement of discovery and who better to build that launch pad than a trusted teacher?

Jane Patterson – Senior Vice President, Customer Success, Thrively

I am a first-generation college graduate. Reared by self-educated intellectuals and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneurs, I have learned that intrinsic motivation is the key to personal fulfillment. What motivates us? What inspires us? What piques our curiosity? What moves us? I attribute my success in life to my mother and my 4th and 5th-grade teacher, Gene Howard. Mr. Howard knew that social-emotional growth underpinned current and future success. He encouraged me, saw the best in me, and was the person I could rely upon in turbulent times. Gene Howard would be proud—but not surprised—that a girl from challenging circumstances earned her undergraduate degree and doctorate from UCLA and joined Thrively to spread this message: Every child enters the world full of promise and brings their intrinsic strengths to the conversation. I join Thrively with gratitude and a clear vision of what is possible for our young people and for our collective future.

Incorporate SEL and interests to develop the whole child

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) explains SEL as “a wide range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can affect a student’s success in school and life.” NCSL goes on to say, “critical thinking, managing emotions, working through conflicts, decision making, and teamwork—all of these are the kind of skills that are not necessarily measured by tests but which round out a student’s education and impact his/her academic success, employ-ability, self-esteem, relationships, as well as civic and community engagement.”

In short, SEL is the skill set that teaches children to be productive members of society.  Most teachers can easily list a set of traits or qualities that they hope to see their students exhibit.  These include qualities such as independent thinking, self motivated, inquisitive and persistent.  Thrively takes these skills even further and combines them with students’ interest and strengths to encourage the student’s whole self development.

Finally, teachers have a method to actually teach these desired skills sets in a way that motivates students to learn and achieve them.

What does the research say?

Thrively is backed by lots of science and research. It utilizes several assessments in order to compile a profile and design an individualized instructional path for each student.  The assessments include the THOMAS and MIDAS, in conjunction with their own independently developed Strength Assessment.

The THOMAS assessment is based on the Habits of Mind, which is part of the previously mentioned science and research. The Habits of Mind are an identified set of 16 problem solving, life-related skills, necessary to effectively operate in society and promote strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship. The understanding and application of these 16 Habits of Mind serve to provide the individual with skills to work through real-life situations that equip that person to respond using awareness (cues), thought, and intentional strategy in order to gain a positive outcome.

The THOMAS Assessment builds a personality profile of the test taker and combines the 16 Habits of Mind into four main traits, Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Compliance.  These traits are known as the DISC personality types.

Alicia Verweij has written an in-depth article; read more

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