Wednesday / April 24

How to Motivate and Engage Learners in Any Environment

Has the sudden shift to virtual learning sent you searching for motivating, engaging, and challenging activities for your online classroom? More and more, I am hearing teachers and parents lament over students who are logging in but tuning out. And as schools transition back to face-to-face, the issue of unmotivated and disengaged students remains, becauseas we knowwe wrestled with this problem long before we went online.  

We all want to work smarter, not harder (how could we even do that!). So, let’s start our problemsolving process the way that genius would—like Einstein. He once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”  I don’t even have one hour here, so let me get started now by re-defining our problem:  

Instead of searching for motivating, engaging, and challenging activities for learners, what if, instead, we created motivating, engaging, and challenging GOALS for learning? 

Goals, you say?  But I have my learning goals, which aim at having students acquire the content standards and skills that I teach.  Mostly, the goals are handed to me in a curriculum document and assessed by standardized tests with scores that I’m accountable forYes, but… 

What are our Long-Term Aims for Learners? 

I believe that your school has other goals, as well.  These are inherent in the long-term aim for graduates to be “college and career ready.” In the 21st century, this encompasses developing cognitive and psychosocial skills such as curiositycreativitylogical thinkinginsightpersistencemetacognition, and leadershipI’ve named these qualities “the seven aptitudes (or talents) of innovators.”   

Today, it is the capacity for innovation, the finding of unique and useful answers to meaningful problems, that will define our students’ success in careers and in life. Are we intentionally targeting and assessing learning goals to discover, develop, and advance the aptitudes of innovators in all learners? If not, I think we should be, and could beusing a goal-oriented approach I call talent-targeted teaching and learning.   

What Are Talent-Targeted Learning Goals? 

Let’s get back to our initial need for motivating and engaging learners, in both virtual and brickandmortar environments.  We have been searching for activities, but brain research tells us that it is goals that motivate. Goals focus our attention and energy and help us to visualize outcomes. Without this focused attention on goals, we waste time, energy, and, ultimately, talent. 

But surely, it is novel activities that engage students’ attention!  Yes, for the short-term. But have you noticed “the law of diminishing returns” on your investment in the latest learning game or gimmick? Unless that novelty leads learners to apply content and skills ipersonally meaningful challenges, they never reach a state of “flow,” the sustained engagement that fosters achievement, creativityand just plain good mental health! (Yes, research shows that flow is the antidote to boredom and depression.)  

SolutionA new process for creating and assessing long-term, intrinsically motivating, content-rich learning goalsIn talent-targeted teaching and learning, teachers and students set “talent goals” that explicitly align the aptitudes of innovators with the required content standards in STEM and the humanities. I use “aptitude” as a synonym for talent to capture its dynamic nature.  

How to Create A Talent Goal 

Let’s walk through the talent-targeted goal planning process (Figure 1) using an example from a problem-based STEM unit, Stop Sports Injuries.  There are many more examples of these “talent goal frames,” as well as the aptitude definitions, student talent goals, and aptitude assessment rubrics in my book, Teach to Develop Talent: How to Engage and Motivate Tomorrow’s Innovators Today 

Step 1. Talent-targeted teaching and learning begins where your current curriculum begins: with the content standards and learning objectives.  Both are assessed in a performance of understandingan open-ended, student-relevant application that demonstrates transfer of learning. 

Step 2. Next, select the talent aptitude that you will targetThis goal targets creativitywhich teachers don’t always think they have the time to “teach” or tools to assess. Again, all the talent aptitude definitions are available in Teach to Develop Talent 

Step 3. Nowlet’s write our talent-targeted learning goals.  The pivotal shift here is that creativity (longterm goal) drives the content and skill acquisition (short-term goals). To foster intrinsic motivation, students have a corresponding student-directed creativity goal. This goal explicitly defines for them what it means to be creative, thus encouraging their metacognition and self-regulation. 

The allimportant difference? Talent goals motivate and engage students in authentic learning with personal relevance and purpose: I am developing my creativity 

How Do We Assess Talent Goals? 

Teachers have many assessment tools related to content and skills, but far fewer, if any, to assess cognitive and psychosocial aptitudes. The Talent Aptitude Learning Progressions (teacher and student versionsare used to compose the rubrics used in formative, summative, and self-assessments (see Figure 2). 

The learning progressions develop a talent continuum from emerging to progressing to advancing. All students are considered “at promise” and emerging, with potential to progress and advance. The targets affirm existing strengths while providing explicit direction for growth. 

We Can Teach to Develop Talent! 

Wcan turn around student disengagement, boredom, and underachievement as we shift our focus to longterm aims for learnersviewing them as tomorrow’s innovators today. The complete cycle of talent-targeted teaching and learning encompasses five stages: (1) Prepare and Pre-Assess. (2) Set Goals, (3) Develop Targets, (4) Design Talent-Targeted Tasks, and (5) Assess and Reflect.   

Use this model with at-risk students as a catalyst for identifying and developing emerging talent, in grade-level groups to challenge the talents of progressing students, and with gifted students to advance their identified talents. All students are motivated to face tough challenges because their aptitudes and interests are engaged. 

Written by

Jeanne L. Paynter, Ed.D. currently works as an educational consultant and faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder and Executive Director of Educating Innovators, which partners with schools to implement unique teaching and learning approaches to engage and challenge all learners, including those who are academically advanced or gifted and talented. Previously she served on the faculty of McDaniel College, Maryland where she taught graduate courses in curriculum and gifted education.

Jeanne has had wide variety of experiences in K-12 public education that have shaped her interest in talent development, leading to the design of a new approach that brings gifted pedagogy to all, talent-targeted teaching and learning. Currently she serves as the President of the Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education (MCGATE).
As the state specialist for gifted and talented education at the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Jeanne directed numerous grant projects to increase the participation and success of low income and minority students in PK-12 advanced programming.  Previous to her work at MSDE, she was the Coordinator for Gifted Education and Magnet Programs K – 12 in Baltimore County Public Schools, a large urban-suburban district.

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