Four Keys to Developing Real Engagement with Your Students

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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As a teacher, having students invested and focused on inquiry, examination, discussion, and creation is the absolute best. Close your eyes and envision your classroom. Hear the excitable conversation surrounding a question you’ve just posed.

Isn’t it amazing?

Now for the important question: how do you make that happen? Last week, I wrote about transitioning students from compliant learners into engaged learners. This week, I will touch on the four keys to that process from the book Real Engagement, which I co-wrote with Robyn Jackson.


What are you aiming for?

Clarity of message is essential whether you are reviewing basic concepts or allowing for open-ended exploration. Are you mastering Algebra? Putting together a science experiment? Developing prototypes within an innovation lab?

Take a look at this video from Dr. Sarah Goldin and Brian Walach of Greenwich High School. They are clear about the goal for their students, but allow for experimentation and trial-and-error within the learning process process.


The real-world element that helps students personalize their learning. Why should I care? Why is this important? Ground your curriculum in relevant, authentic experiences that your students can relate to.

We want to encourage play, problem-solving, and failure as part of innovation, but we also need them to be open for feedback. Can your students receive informal feedback from their peers?

It’s like Ron Berger‘s example of Austin’s butterfly. The power of feedback can transform a good idea into a great idea while facilitating learning in the process.


As a teacher, it’s important to know that you are supported and that your administration is invested in your success. You benefit from “learning messy,” or being permitted to not get it right from the outset and so do your students.

The last thing we want is for our students to be paralyzed by the fear of needing to get it perfect and race to the finish line. It is through failure that students stretch their minds and come up with the ideas that transform their knowledge.


Your challenge as a teacher is to balance challenge and skill development. Christine Laurenzi of Indi-Ed does this by splitting her days up into two parts: curriculum and inquiry.

For the curriculum portion of the day, the students are learning the basics: math, reading, writing, science, etc. The inquiry portion of the day is especially fascinating because she allows her students input into what they want to research and study.

Where are you on the spectrum of implementing a personalized learning model? Is this something you are already doing or are you just considering it?

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