Teachers in classrooms are always looking for an edge to help them connect with students. Especially those hard to reach students that stick out in the classroom like a stray piece of broccoli in your teeth after a nice meal. If you have ever had a successful lesson where the students left energized and excited about your lesson, you know what an amazing experience it is. Not only for your students, but for your sanity as an educator. It is those moments of complete student engagement where everything comes together and you are glad you chose education as your profession.
In the process to try and diagnose a solution to helping students take ownership of their own learning, we have looked towards learning styles, engagement strategies and a variety of classroom modifications for answers. We bring in new curriculums, take students outside and invent amazing games in an effort to have more excellent moments in the classroom. Despite our efforts students sometimes are tuned out for our best designed lessons, and those teacher pleasers are often just going through the motions. How to we capture the minds of students with a variety of backgrounds, needs and ability levels?
The answer might not be simple, but we can start by looking to the marketing world for help. After all, these are the people that can get me to buy a new iPad when the one I already does everything I need. We have all been sitting on the couch after a big meal, turned on the television to see an add for a juicy hamburger and thought, "I am so full, but that does look good". Marketing professionals have mastered what drives our decisions and we can learn from them by discovering how they tap into the human brain to produce feeling. When looking to get a group of students engaged, we must look at what motivates their decision making. We have to tap into the key motivator that will create buy in for our lessons.
Simon Sinek created something called the Golden Circle as a way of explaining marketing behaviors. In his Ted talk which explains the principals of the Golden Circle, Mr. Sinek uses the example of Apple Computers to explain why they have been so successful in influencing people to buy anything that they make. I have posted the Ted talk below, and I recommend taking a look at it. If you watch his ideas with your classroom in mind, you will discover that most of us have been going about our education efforts from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. We are not in touch with the part of the brain that makes decisions, therefore we are not getting our students to actively find a need to be a part of what is happening in the classroom. Most students just don't "feel" like participating. And we might not have been giving them a reason to.
This is a quick explanation of the Golden Circle, however please watch the Simon Sinek video, and maybe even read his book, because he is the expert on this. Here is the quick:
Here is a quick summation of Simon Sinek's explanation of the Golden Circle. The inner most part of the circle is the WHY portion. Why we do things is a process of our Limbic brains that control emotion and feeling. The next circle is HOW, and the how section is made up of the decisions that control our ability to get to the result. The outer most circle is the WHAT section. What we do is controlled by the Neocortex, and it involves rational thought. The principal of the Golden Circe is that we most often are working from the WHAT section towards the WHY section. You usually start a lesson plan with what you would like the students to do. Often we utilize this as our goal statement for the classroom. As an example we state: Given the information in the book, you will be able to answer the following questions with 80% accuracy. This is working from the rational Neocortex part of our brain, which does not control decision making towards our Limbic brain. In many cases we feel that by putting this clear goal not he board our students will have a greater chance of success. However many teachers will probably agree with me that we tend to get the same disconnected students as before. This is because we need to tap into the Limbic brain, the part of the brain that controls decision making. This is the part of the brain that "feels" good or bad about something and tends to control our efforts from behind the scene. So in order to tap into the part of our brain that will get us motivated and engaged, we have to connect with WHY we are embarking on the lesson that we are on. It gets even more complex as Simon Sinek also ties this to the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, which can also be tied into the classroom, but would take an entire blog post of its own.
In order to use this principal in your classroom, think about how you present your lessons to the group. Do you explain why students need to learn the lesson, or do you focus your time on what you would like the students to do? If you stay focused on the result, you will not get the engagement back from the students. If you focus on how they are to work on the assignment you will end up with confused looks and students looking around for others to help them "keep up", when in fact they are just not sold on the idea. The answer is to get them to buy into why the content or lesson you are presenting is so important.
Have you ever met a dynamic or engaging teacher? They are often referred to as passionate individuals that are driven by their content. If you think about it in the context of Mr. Sinek's marketing model you will realize that they are all about the WHY. Those teachers are able to create demand for their content because they are so engaged in why it is important. A science teacher that loves science usually has little problem trying to get students to buy into a lesson because they are first explaining WHY that concept is so essential. When you are teaching a lesson, you must make sure that you have a good and valuable reason WHY, to create demand for how and what you will be doing. The results will follow.
It sounds simple really, but I assure you it is a difficult skill to master. When trying to apply this type of thinking to the lesson, you might find that your WHY relates to WHAT you want your outcome to be. Your WHY cannot be "to increase test scores". That is a result, and results do not drive behavior. If you think about this, you will find that most of your lesson plans need modification, or a complete rebuild. You might even find that your curriculum map is needing to be updated because of your need to identify WHY you are teaching a subject. In many cases you might find that assignments have no WHY, or you don't know WHY. If you only know that you are working on a piece of work because it is part of the curriculum, evaluate that work to determine what the specific purpose is. How does the assignment work to bring students to a higher level of understanding. How does that assignment bring them to WHY they are learning. If you can begin to map your material to this concept, you will see students becoming in charge of their own learning because they understand WHY it is important, HOW it needs to be done, and WHAT the outcome should look like.