A Meaningful Engagement

And no, I am not talking about a well-planned, perfectly-executed, YouTube-worthy, marriage proposal between two lovebirds.  Unless those two love birds are students and learning.

When training interns to develop plans and facilitate psychoeducational groups for at-risk teens, I often offer this advice, “If you’re bored, you don’t even have to ask if the residents are- it’s a given.”  There are ways to make even the most bor-rrring of topics interesting.  Estes, Mintz, and Gunter (2011) identify eight essential needs of learners, including the concept of “meaningful engagement.”  These needs are explained as factors that must be met and addressed by teachers in every classroom in order to speak to how students learn. In other words, if a teacher effectively fulfills the duty of accurately assessing a classroom needs, all students will be meaningful-ly engage-d in the learning process.  And, according to Tomlinson’s research on responding to range of needs within differentiated classrooms (2003), this concept requires the teacher or facilitator to know his/her students enough to identify their needs, design instruction appropriate to the students’ abilities, and provide a conducive learning environment.  The Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning (MCMEL) provides simple and easy-to-understand explanations of the various aspects of the meaningful engagement concept.

Active learning for preschool kids colorful train

Common sense, right? Engage students and they will learn.  One would think. However, when one also thinks about the layers upon layers upon lists of things that teachers have to take into account when preparing for class or stepping into a classroom- topics, time limit, state and federal standards, developmental age, behavioral issues, attention spans, adhering to the different learning domains- the list is endless!  Ideas like “ensuring students are and remain present and engaged,” is often so simple of an idea, that it is assumed to be included in instruction planning criteria. But, simplicity is worth revisiting.

The MCMEL reiterates the necessity of focusing on student motivation, a major component.  Dr. Judy Willis (2007) has conducted neuroscience and cognitive research that illustrated the brain’s response of reduction in information retention and behavioral acting out, to the stressors of boredom and frustration. But when the brain is motivated, it learns more effectively- it’s science!  She even facilitated (an engaging!) workshop that aligned her studies with the new (and controversial!) Common Core State Standards, a 2012 initiative to revamp the public education standards, further emphasizing the nation-wide push to refocus on effective teaching and thus active learning.

But the big question- how is it done?  As Estes, Mintz, and Gunter (2011) stress, teachers must constantly be reflecting on the effectiveness of their current teaching strategies with their current population.  They must be effective teachers.  They must be present in their teaching and planning.  And then, the students’ learning fun begins.

MCMEL provides a wonderful example of a format for creating an engaging task that can be applied to countless content areas.  They suggest that an engaging task is made up of three parts, “the compelling scenario, a role for the student,” and the activity for the student to do.  NOTE that is does not say a student reads a scenario and simply responds to questions about it. Rather, it suggests that the students are provided with a scenario and are tasked at placing themselves into the scene and thinking critically and creatively, in order to solve the provided issue.  The “solving” may be by way of writing a narrative, acting out the rest of the scene, or building a solution.  The students brains are actively engaged, providing the motivation to stay on task, and learn the material.  Genius it is, and Geniuses they will be!

As engaging and entertaining as the topics within sex education can be, simply relying on the novelty of the concepts is a disservice to the students. Contrary to popular belief, sexual education doesn’t teach itself.  But, by addressing the critical elements of meaningful engagement (tailored learning, student motivation, technology for learning, and deliberate leadership) teachers are more likely to actually get through to their students.  And in a sex education class, where “not learning” can directly lead to significant life changes (STI’s, pregnancy, self-worth, etc), teachers need to actually get through to their students!

The progressive field of sex education (especially the method taught at Widener University) typically incorporates the ideas of customized learning that addresses a variety of learning styles.  In addition, sex and sexuality education has the inherent benefit of being real-world applicable, which further encourages student motivation.  However, in order to incorporate the technology, teachers need to be prepared and present.  The key to implementing all four of these is a focused and educated educator within a cooperative system.  Teachers need to be engaged, so that they can lead students to be. And once this occurs, according to the ideas of Meaningful Engagement, the learning process and thus learning will be effective.

Can you hear the wedding bells now?  Students and (actual) learning, together forever, at last!


Estes, T., Susan, M., & Mary Alice, G. (2011). Instruction: A models approach. (6 ed., pp. 3-18). Boston: Pearson.

Willis, J. (2007). Which Brain Research Can Educators Trust?. Phi Delta Kappan88(9), 697-699.

3 responses to “A Meaningful Engagement

  1. Thank you for sharing! One would think that teaching human sexuality wouldn’t be boring to the audience or the instructor, but that is not always the case. When beginning my human sexuality undergraduate course I administer a pre-test to assess what students might already know in order to avoid boring lessons. I have even found that asking students about their perspective on topics,like STIs, a week or so before the lesson helps me to determine how to teach the topic based on prior knowledge and interest of the students. This post was helpful for me to expand my approach. – SSR

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. If sexual education is not more interesting than we are not assisting our students into becoming sexually healthy adults. If we can’t get our message across, then students may not be able to make the sexual decisions they need to make. Combining the meaningful engagement with the cooperative learning method will give students the best opportunities to learn sexual health techniques that will assist them into becoming sexually healthy people.

  3. Well said! I really like that you addressed the idea that sexuality education, just because it can relate to sex, is not enough to keep students motivated. We need to be able to relate to them so that the information sinks in and sticks with the learners.

    I love the idea of the real life scenario where students have to figure out how to solve the problem. As a math major in my Masters program, we were constantly relating the material to real life scenarios and inserting ourselves into them to search out an answer and I think that those skills can really make the difference between a passive and active learner. Awesome post!

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