The art of student engagement can feel elusive, undefinable. Some teachers seem to have “it” — students with rapt attention, hanging on their every word. Others struggle to capture and maintain student attention throughout a typical seven-step lesson plan. I definitely struggled as a first-year teacher. Researchers (and my administrators!) often told me just how important engagement is to academic achievement. But how do we get it?
Weston Kieschinck’s new book, The Educator’s Atlas: Your Roadmap to Engagement, takes the typical lesson plan and reimagines it — focusing on how students are feeling and giving it a true arc, similar to that of a good story. With five easy steps, he creates a roadmap for teachers to spark engagement and carry it throughout the lesson, making learning not only possible but memorable, too.
In your book, ATLAS, you write, “It’s time to put student engagement first and hold it as our most important objective.” Why student engagement at this moment?
I think kids are more disengaged from school than they ever have been in the history of the modern schoolhouse. There are a couple of reasons for that.
One, during COVID, a lot of kids got to experience what school felt like from home. They liked things like voice and choice and self-pacing. I don’t think they liked the notion of, ‘Hey, all my instruction is the teacher in front of slides talking.’ Then, we brought all of our kids back to school, and they lost the things that they liked. They lost voice and choice, pace and place, but they still retained the thing that they disliked, which was: teacher in front of slides talking. They’re like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. I can do this from home in my pajamas.’
Two, a lot of us viewed school as a vehicle for upward mobility. We bought into the notion that you go to school, work hard, go to college… get a good job, and you get to live a good life. I think a lot of the kids who are currently in school watched the generation before them do exactly that, except they came out with massive student loan debt. Many of them aren’t able to buy houses, and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think kids are paying attention to that.
You also point out that “student engagement” is a widely used term but lacks an agreed-upon definition. What is student engagement?
So many people use the word engagement as a synonym for fun. I have no interest whatsoever in helping people become the ‘fun’ teacher. We’re not in the business of entertainment. That’s not our work. Now, do I think learning should be really joyful? Do I think there can be certain elements of teaching and learning that are really fun? Of course, I do, but that’s not the main event. The main event is engagement, and we can’t keep using engagement and fun as though they are synonyms.
Here’s how I define engagement. We know kids are engaged if they are curious, if they are participating, and if they have a desire to persevere, regardless of the level of rigor associated with the task. Those three things have to happen for kids to be engaged.
Tell us the story behind ATLAS.
It was 15 years in the making. In my time as a classroom teacher, people said all the time, “Hey, be more engaging.” I couldn’t help but think, what the hell does that mean?
We know engagement when we see it. It’s very recognizable — like, wow, these kids are wildly engaged. But my question was, how do we understand what makes engagement happen? So, I’ve been doing thousands of observations, just trying to figure out: what do engaging teachers do differently? And I noticed that they do very similar things.
Then, I started looking at other places we seek engagement: in the books that we read, the movies that we watch, the music that we listen to… I noticed that… all of these things follow specific formulas for engagement. Whether it’s joke structure, whether it’s like a Disney movie, whether it’s a really great song… so, why do we not have a formula for engagement?
When we ask a teacher to sit down and design an engaging experience, we’re asking them to do that blank slate every time. That’s not how a person writes a song. It’s not how a person crafts a joke. It’s not how a person tells a great story. It’s not how a person does a screenplay.
So, I started to piece together what engaging teachers were doing differently, and it led me right to the ATLAS model.
“We know kids are engaged if they are curious, if they are participating, and if they have a desire to persevere, regardless of the level of rigor associated with the task.”
Really great teachers start by capturing and holding students’ attention. They’re masters of the transitional phrase. They know how to teach a very clear and very concise lesson. Then, they always follow that lesson with some sort of activity. They understand that it’s not enough just to lay information at children’s feet. Then, there’s a summation. What does that mean? They understand that learning is sticky when it’s tied to emotion, and they are really, really cognizant of how kids feel on the front end and the back end of their lesson.
They understand that the feeling kids feel when they walk into the classroom cannot be boredom, and the feeling they feel when they walk out cannot be failure. Because if those are the two prevailing emotions, they’ll forget everything that happened. The brain will self-select it out. It doesn’t want to remember times when we felt bored and like a failure.
The layering of emotion with the arc of a lesson was the most surprising thing about the book. You’re not just talking about what’s happening cognitively for kids. You’re talking about how they feel throughout the lesson and how that impacts their learning.
It’s profoundly impactful. Learning is sticky when it’s tied to emotion. If you just try to recall your profoundly memorable experiences, they’re all tied to intense emotions — when we felt joyful, when we felt sad, when we felt grief, when we felt surprised, like those things are memorable. Let’s capitalize on that… not ignore it.
You write that the ATLAS method, “Puts teachers in the driver’s seat.” Tell us what that means.
I have always been and will always be a firm believer that the single greatest thing that we can give children is a relationship with a highly qualified teacher who believes with relentless tenacity in their ability to succeed. I think one of the things that we need to do as a collective, both inside and outside education, is seek out ways to empower our teachers.
The ATLAS model puts them first because it recognizes that you can’t outsource engagement to a thing. No matter what it is, no matter what the technology tool, no matter what the product, it will never be as valuable at engaging kids as a really great teacher.
If an engaging teacher is the answer, if it’s the antidote to the problem of disengagement… then we have to help our teachers understand how to be more engaging. ATLAS is a support for the problem of engagement.
One of the more provocative things you write in ATLAS is, “Long live the lecture.” I thought we were supposed to be done with the whole “sage on the stage” thing.
Hell yeah! Long live the lecture. I stand by that statement.
Here’s the thing. Anyone who’s seen a really great TED talk, anyone who’s a church-going person and sees a really great sermon… there’s something profoundly moving about that experience. We like it. We like it when it’s done well and when it is a part of a larger catalog of experiences.
I am pro blended learning. I am pro collaborative learning. And at the same time, that doesn’t mean that the pendulum needs to swing so far that we leave lecture behind completely. Every single one of these things has a place. A person who can give a really great lecture or a really great speech—that person is excruciatingly valuable. We’ve all seen them when they’re garbage, and we’ve all seen ’em when they’re really good. And when they’re really good, there’s profound resonance in that. There’s something about it that rings the tuning fork deep down inside of us.
But a lot of educators will tell you they’re good at lectures, and guess how many for whom that’s actually true? A very, very small percentage. We have to take an honest look and ask ourselves, is this a thing I’m actually good at?
In your earlier book, Bold School, you talk about technology in education. Where do you think the future of edtech is headed now that we’re back in the classroom with all those devices from the pandemic?
When you’re looking at technology and whether it has value in the classroom, it has to do two things. It has to first improve efficacy—improve the quality of what’s happening in your classroom.
Second, it has to improve efficiency. This is the one that gets ignored. We often say, ‘We need to use this tool because this will make us better.’ Well, is this going to add hours upon hours of planning time to an already packed schedule? Because if that’s the case, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell I’m using any of this technology. It’s why so many teachers have resisted and continue to resist.
What about blended learning? Where is that trend headed?
Honestly, I think I’m done saying “blended learning.”
I remember when Jurassic Park came out, it was a profound experience because they were using CGI in a way that had never been done before. Other movies started to use CGI in that way, but nobody distinguished the difference between a CGI movie and one that is not. You know what they all were? Just movies. It’s this weird thing that we’ve done in education where we’re just like, oh, if there’s technology involved, this is blended learning. But if there’s no technology involved, this is just regular teaching and learning.
I think any good teaching and learning that happens from this moment forward is going to include elements of technology.
I cannot tell you the number of ‘Tech Tuesdays’ I’ve seen in schools around the country because teachers have been encouraged to use technology. You can trace that back to how we talk about blended learning as though it’s a separate thing, and it’s just not. It’s just great teaching.
About the Author – Weston Kieschnick
Weston Kieschnick is considered one of the world’s most recognizable and sought-after speakers and educational leaders. He is an award-winning teacher, best-selling author, TEDx speaker, coach, husband, and father. He is the author of, Bold School, Breaking Bold, co-author of The Learning Transformation: A Guide to Blended Learning for Administrators and the creator and host of Teaching Keating; one of the most downloaded podcasts in the United States for educators and parents. Weston has worked in collaboration with innovative tech and publishing companies (Google, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Apple) to redefine teaching and learning in schools. As such, he’s advised educators from every state in the US and more than 30 countries around the world. Districts where Mr. Kieschnick has designed content, implemented initiatives, and trained educational leaders have been recognized by the Learning Counsel as being among the top ten in the nation for their work in blended learning. You can find Weston’s work published in EdWeek, EdTech Magazine, The Spark, and featured on TED, the 10-Minute Teacher, Teaching Tales, Kids Deserve It, and LeadUp Teach. Connect with Weston on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or at WestonKieschnick.com.
About the Interviewer & Author – Carolyn Snell
Carolyn Snell started her career in education teaching first grade in San Bernardino, California. A passion for the way technology and stellar curricula can transform classrooms led her to various jobs in edtech, including at the Orange County Department of Education. Her knack for quippy copy landed her a dream job marketing StudySync—an industry leading ELA digital curriculum. Now, as the Senior Content Marketing Manager for Imagine Learning, Carolyn revels in the opportunity to promote innovative products and ideas that are transforming the educational space for teachers and students.