Five Strategies to Engage Your Students - By Nancy Steinhauer

When I was a kid, someone must have decided I was gifted or something, because opportunities began to fly my way. In Grade 6, I was allowed to accelerate through the math program teaching myself with the textbook. In grade 7, I was withdrawn from class once a week to explore the work of Edward De Bono, engage in research projects on a subject of interest to me (Darwin’s Theory of Evolution), and participate in mindfulness techniques, like guided visualization. In High School I was invited to join a group of about 30 students who were allowed to propose projects to replace the standard curriculum and then supported to pursue them. With the exception of the Grade 6 math experience I loved it all.

What didn’t make sense to me, at the time or since, was this: Why was I afforded these opportunities and others weren’t? Certainly ALL students would find it exciting to investigate topics of interest to them and to learn about the science of creativity. Denying students these opportunities, it seemed to me, was a recipe for disengagement. I just couldn’t understand why these approaches were limited to a few rather than being offered to many.

As a result, when I decided to pursue my MA in Human Development and Applied Psychology, I spent a good portion of my time researching this very issue: how can we teach all students the way research recommends we teach gifted students? As a teacher and a principal, I have always tried to move my own practice and the practice of others closer to this ideal.

This weekend, I was invited to speak at a conference hosted by SENG: Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted. In my talk, I suggested 5 strategies that can be adopted in any classroom which are recommended for gifted students, but benefit all:

Practical Strategy #1: Enrichment

Enrichment refers to rich, relevant learning experiences that are more abstract, more complex, more open-ended, and more multi-faceted. These experiences are organized conceptually and and teach students about disciplinary knowledge more so than facts. All kids benefit from learning at “the idea level,” and it only takes a few tweaks to push learning into this realm. For example, a few years ago at The Mabin School, the Grade 5’s were travelling to Ottawa in June, and would visiting our Member of Parliament. I asked the teacher -- what do we want the kids to be able to say to our MP when they get there? This led to a study of Truth and Reconciliation and the role of education. In particular, the students became very interested in the disparity between Federal funding of schools on reserves vs Provincial funding of other public schools. This led to a study of protest art, and the creation of an art installation in front of Parliament Hill alerting passers-by to the injustice of this funding disparity. Students created a PowerPoint presentation for our MP, and brought their concerns to her attention. She listened carefully and responded with the seriousness and respect they deserved. That initial question allowed for a richer experience that was inter-disciplinary and meaningful in a way that a simple trip to Ottawa would not have been.

Practical Strategy #2: Acceleration

Full grade acceleration is not a policy that has much support these days in Canada, but single subject acceleration is quite easy to do through a process called dynamic assessment. This is all about assessment for learning. When teachers take time at the beginning of a unit to assess students’ understanding of a topic, they can then plan more precisely for the group in front of them. No student wants to learn things that they already  know -- or if they do, they should be encouraged to take a responsible risk and step outside their comfort zone. This is what learning is all about. One strategy for allowing students to go further, is to avoid tasks that have ceilings. In math, for example, problems that are open-ended or are what Jo Boaler calls low-floor, high ceiling tasks allow everyone to benefit from a challenge that is matched to their particular skill set. At The Mabin School, we all participate in Jo Boaler’s Week of Inspirational Math. It is full of  and low floor, high ceiling tasks, as well as opportunities to learn about the power of the brain and growth mindset.

Practical Strategy #3: Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning allows students to take more refined skills and apply them at a higher plane of sophistication. Genius Hour is a great example of an easy way to start students on projects. Based loosely on the model developed at Google, where software engineers were expected to spend up to 20 percent of their paid time working on their own ideas, Genius Hour allows students to take 1-2 hours a week to pursue a passion project. At The Mabin School, a few of our teachers have tried implementing a Genius Hour. Initially, the idea can be a bit overwhelming for students. Not used to having so much individual control over their learning, students can start with simple projects that they are fairly sure they can accomplish. With time and support, though, students’ endeavours become complex, and the opportunity to share learning becomes a rich experience for all.

Practical Strategy #4: Mentorship

In their article about Mentorship, Joanne Foster and Dona Matthews define mentorship as “a supportive relationship established between a learner and someone who is more experienced in a particular domain.” For students with a particular talent, this can look like weekly meetings with a professional in the field. At The Mabin School, we collapse classes every week so that younger and older students can learn together; the older students act as mentors to the younger ones. When a student has a particular interest, it is surprising how easy it is to find and interesting and interested adult to support the learning.

Practical Strategy #5: Social-Emotional Learning

Even when students are cognitively very advanced, their emotional intelligence does not necessarily match their IQ. All students benefit from explicit teaching of social-emotional skills. Research has shown that this explicit teaching makes a difference. At The Mabin School, we use Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind as a way of organizing our teaching in the social/emotional domain. We introduce four habits in Kindergarten, and then introduce a few more along the way as the students journey to Grade 6. These Habits of Mind become the lens through which students set goals, reflect, collect evidence of learning, and speak about their progress. It is also a common language that students, staff, and parents can use to describe the very important skills that make people successful not just in school but in life.

All students benefit from the kinds of strategies recommended for gifted students. For more information about these strategies, I recommend a few articles and websites:

Nancy SteinhauerComment