Saturday / April 13

Are Your Lessons Starting Strong? Priming and Orienting Learners for Success

“A good beginning makes a good ending” goes the old English proverb. And likewise: “Work well begun is work half done.” 

The most effective teachers don’t take student engagement for granted. Yet in our work in classrooms, we see that not enough attention is paid to good beginnings; this lack of attention violates much of what we know from research about motivation, optimal experience, schema theory, reading research, and cognitive science in general. We know, too, that humans feel first and think second. (You might think it’s wise to meditate each morning but if you don’t feel like it, what wins?)  

We advocate for working more consciously and intentionally at the start of learning challenges to help learners “buy in” and to see the relevance of the learning being pursued. We ask ourselves questions like:  

  • What are we “offering” students? A transformation? The skills to solve a problem? A way of looking at the world?
  • How does this learning make students’ lives better today? Tomorrow? What personal or academic benefits accrue with this learning?  

Anyone who has ever taught knows this intuitively: We have to capture learners’ interests and emotions, help them see personal connections, and get them invested in the purpose and payoff of learning before asking them to do any considerable work towards it.  

We would love to see teachers make this move explicit. Why write stories? Why make arguments? Why speak publicly? Why learn about functions, the French Revolution, or mitosis? What’s the deep purpose of this kind of learning? What’s in it for you – and for others? What work might get done in the world? 

All these questions have legitimate answers, and students deserve to know them. If we can’t answer the “big why” question about a curricular topic or strategy, then we shouldn’t be teaching it.  

Five minutes invested at the beginning of a lesson, or one or two lessons at the start of a unit, can create a “hook” that you can hang the rest of your unit on. This type of frontloading activates interest, connects to current lived reality, and sustains engagement over time.  In our units, we call our first two instructional moves PRIMING and ORIENTING.  

PRIMING is accessing and building background knowledge, generating interest, and making connections to what learners already know and care about; ORIENTING is destination and goal-setting, task deconstruction, and self-assessment as a launching pad from which to dive into the unit of study.  

Let’s say you are teaching, as we did this past semester, a unit on argument. 

We wanted students to develop new capacities for reading informational textjudging the reliability of sourcesand creating surveys to collect, analyze, and make claims about their own data. Eventually we invited them to compose informative and influential arguments using that data in the form of a position paper and a public service campaign. 

How do you get students to buy into that? 

Simple. Give them a relevant context.  

Here was ours: 


Exploring argumentation through this topic felt not only relevant but also important in students’ day-to-day lives and decision making, a veritable home run from a student engagement perspective. 

But a great lens for inquiry is not enough. You have to stack the deck in your favor by ensuring that the first activities of the unit generate curiosity, buy-in, and excitement. Again, we achieve that through proper PRIMING and ORIENTING. 

Priming the learners: Stack the deck FOR STUDENT SUCCESS 

All learning proceeds from what is already known. So, how do you access what students already know in a structured, exciting, and ultimately productive way? 

To PRIME in the vaping unit, we thought about how to activate student background knowledge, personal connections and interest with an essential question like “How does our culture harm teen health, and what can we do about it (in the case of vaping and other issues)?”  

After journaling responses to those questions, we had students interact with a survey asking them to identify their level of agreement to statements about the theme. 

As you can imagine, these statements caused quite a stir and allowed for vigorous debate rich in facts, perspective-taking, anecdotes, and logical (and illogical) opinions.  

It took approximately 1-2 periods for students to journal, share, and engage thoughtfully with the controversial statements. In the grand scheme of the unit, this would prove to be time well-spent. Over two periods, we gathered a wealth of formative assessment data, including an opportunity to observe students who: 

  • demonstrated the greatest and least background knowledge about the topic 
  • spoke and argued from evidence more naturally than peers
  • already used rhetorical devices in their arguing
  • called attention to perspective and point of view 

The teacher who really tunes in will learn a lot from facilitating this kind of activity-first introduction to a unit.  

So, what keeps the momentum going?  

Orienting towards the destination: Building momentum 

Which is more inviting or interesting to you in the photo below? 

They’re virtually the same task except one has context and an audience and one does not. 

We ORIENTED students to our final learning outcomes through this challenge: Students are vaping in school. As a copywriter for a leading marketing agency, you have been hired to build a compelling campaign that influences teens to reconsider their choice to vape.  

We then shared examples of biopics of famous public health reformers and activists and asked students to rank them in order of effectiveness, and then to justify their rankings. This involved students in articulating critical standards for achieving informative and effective health policies.  

We then brainstormed with students to identify what they needed to learn to do and to deliberately practice in order to achieve those standards. We shared how we planned to help them collect and analyze their own data, and how we would support them in composing their own position papers and materials for a public service campaign. 

By consciously including a little dose of these two moves at the beginning of each unit, week, and lesson, we have found that we have a much higher likelihood of sustaining motivation and engagement over time… by design.  

With this instructional momentum, units that might not have been possible beforeeither because they were too complex, too far removed from students’ lived experiences, or otherwise inaccessiblebecome possibilities.  

PRIMING and ORIENTING builds instructional momentum for r students to make a longer term investment in their learningno small feat!  


The EMPOWER model provides a roadmap of the major moves we include in each unit, week and lesson at different levels of detail. These moves summarize the process of cognitive apprenticeship and mirror the research on motivation, optimal experience, cognition, and development of expertise:  

Now, we could geek out about each of these moves, what they represent, andhow they show up in big and little ways in every single learning situation across every major discipline and field, but suffice it to say, having a set of principles that remind us to—among other things— PRIME and ORIENT our learners at the outset of each learning challenge helps us to consistently capture learners’ investment and interest. Then everything else that follows is much easier. And the inevitable struggles are then productive ones about deep learning, not about lack of motivation or off-task behaviors. 

We think these two moves of PRIMING and ORIENTING are mustmake moves of teaching in every learning situation because teaching is a transitive verb: it requires both a direct and an indirect object. Because we are always teaching something to somebody, we’d better address both the motivational and the learning needs of those specific human beings with whom we work. 

Even so, not all our lessons run like a Cuisinart. Athe end of the day, however, this framework gives us a scorecard for how we engaged our learners and met them where they are. And it gives us a mental model of what to do to proactively promote motivation and prepare all our students for successful learning each and every day. 

Our books Planning Powerful Instruction, grades 6-12 (available now) and grades 2-5 (available in April 2020) walk you through every step of EMPOWER and provide numerous strategies you can use immediately in every step of the model. We’ll break down some of the books’ key concepts and tools for you on Corwin Connect in the coming months. In the meantime, we invite you to reach out with questions and to check out our website,, for downloadable tools that will help you get started with EMPOWER right now. 

Written by

A classroom teacher for fifteen years, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. Jeff is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project.

Adam Fachler is a strategist, coach, and consultant for Pre-K-12 teachers and educational leaders throughout New York. Formerly a middle school teacher, staff developer, and intern principal, he left the classroom in 2014 to co-found the School in the Square, a public charter school in Washington Heights. In addition to creating the EMPOWER framework, Adam is also a leading expert in Thinking Maps®—a visual language for learning—and leads acclaimed regional certification workshops in the methodology. In all his work, Adam strives to provide educators with the engaging professional development that they deserve. Adam lives with his wife Liz in Brooklyn, NY.

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