May 10, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Engaged student

We educators talk a lot about student engagement. We understand that engagement is the magic key that drives the student and creates the moment when they become self-motivated. Engagement must be at the core of our goals as educators, for an engaged student finds wonder in their learning, and they not only find meaning in their studies, but they grow personally, for a lifetime, as a result of that learning.

But what do we really mean when we talk about the engaged student? What does it look like in the brain when a student is truly inspired? In the 2008 article, Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning , the authors cite research from LeDoux, Eden and Schacter whose studies found connections between learning and 1) connections with emotions and memories, 2) relationships to real-life experiences, and 3) “activation of both the auditory and visual areas of the brain to create meaning.” [i] In short, they are talking about what has become known as “brain-based learning,” which consists of teaching strategies that encourage the brain to make associations and “create synaptic connections and anchor learning through contextual experience.” [ii]

In many ways, the research has confirmed what humanity’s greatest thinkers discovered long ago. How many years has it been since you slowed down and went back to meditate for a moment on some of the great axioms about learning and education? They hold wonderful hints and secrets that not only still apply, but have been proven by even the most modern research.

  • Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” (Malcolm Forbes, 1919-1990) To engage our students, we need to teach them not only to develop answers, but also learn to ask questions. We need to engage their judgment, creativity and reason, not just their memories.
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939) Clearly for students to be inspired to not just succeedbut also to exceed, we educators must engage their passions and, as stated above, their emotions. Our challenge is to seek out those things that are of direct personal interest to our students, and then show them how to find the connections to these passions and what we’re focusing on in the classroom.
  • There is nothing training cannot do. Nothing is above its reach. It can turn bad morals to good; it can destroy bad principles and recreate good ones; it can lift men to angelship.” (Mark Twain, 1835-1910) These words are beautiful at so many levels, but at the purely practical one, Twain reminds us of something that we need to bring to our students attention every day. We can help them develop an awareness that they are learning so much more than facts and processes; they are learning the skills that will allow them to contribute to solving the problems of humanity. In short, we need to show them how they are developing the power to change the world.

What? Who has time to instill passion, emotion and caring? Many teachers are doing this every day, but we need more! Quite often, educators are pressed more to ensure that students are able to do their multiplication tables, find the capital of North Carolina on a map of the United States and recite the chemical formula for water. 

And yet, our greatest challenge remains inextricably linked to our greatest hope for the future. We must do all we can to light those fires of inspiration and help our students find those deep personal connections to their learning. If we can do that, not only will they learn more successfully, but it will be our students who grab the reins, take charge of their learning, and maybe—just maybe—find their way toward Twain’s angelship.

[i]Kaufman, E. Robinson, S. Bellah, K. Akers, C. Haase-Wittler, P. Martindale, L. Engaging Students with Brain-Based Learning. ACTE Online. September 2008.


For further reading:

Pychyl , Timothy A. Don't Delay: Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals. Psychology Today Blogs.May 10, 2008.

Haenke, Rod. Using Brain Research to Engage Students. Engage Learner.October 3, 2008. 

Related Reading:

Using the Human Element to Make Science Fun and Approachable

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom