20 Strategies for How to Engage Students | An interview with Marcia Tate

“My son is certainly capable…” she paused for a moment, considering what she was about to say next, “he’s just lazy!” When my friend said that to me, I was immediately transported back to my childhood. For I too, struggled in school, and I remember how my mom would say the same thing about me, that I was lazy. It took me a second before I responded to my friends comment, “It’s probably not so much that he’s lazy, but rather that he’s not being engaged.”

Engagement is one of the big things we struggle with as teachers; how do we keep our students engaged? The more we learn about the brain, the more we can see that the brain has many different ways of learning and it is up to us as classroom teachers to try and activate as many different forms of learning as we can in our classrooms.

Marcia Tate, educator and author of Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites: 20 Instructional Strategies That Engage the Brain, shared some of her ideas with me at the 2012 Calgary Teachers’ Convention. She outlined 20 strategies for classroom engagement that can be implemented in the classroom, which vary from storytelling to games to role-play, to music. During our conversation, Marcia stressed the importance of incorporating movement into your daily classroom pedagogy, as movement connects to one of our strongest memory systems, which is muscle memory.

When she said that it struck a chord with me, because I was that kid who was always tapping out beats on desks, always drawing pictures, always making little cars out of erasers, tacks, and staples I would find on the ground. Whatever it was, I had to keep moving. And reflecting back, I wonder if these qualities should be embraced rather than suppressed. My friend whose son is “lazy” is captain of his hockey team and can often be found helping his dad in the garage. That doesn’t sound like a lazy or unmotivated kid to me, it just sounds like a kid whose skills and talents are not celebrated in the current structure of school.

As Marcia says, “The person who is the most active is actually growing the most brain cells and that has to be the student in the classroom.” So, imagine me as a student in your classroom, a quiet student who was not disruptive and would, for the most part, fly under the radar. Shortly after instructions were given, I would be tapping away on the desk or drawing at any opportunity I could find. But, if we shift our instruction to focus on the use of visuals, infographs/graphic organizers, music, drawing and project based learning, then that would engage a student like myself. Similarly, my friend’s son would benefit greatly from the use of manipulatives, games, projects and role-play.

Different people learn in different ways and just as Marcia cautioned, no one strategy is more important than any of the other 20, and all should be used on a daily basis. So, if we shift our pedagogy to incorporate more of these strategies, just think of all the dendrites that will sprout inside the minds “lazy” students like myself!


The 20 Strategies

1.  writing
2.  storytelling
3.  mnemonic devices
4.  visuals
5.  movement (Attention Span = age)
6.  roll play
7.  visualization
8. metaphor, analogy, simile (summarize throughout the lessons)
9. reciprocal teaching & cooperative learning
10. Music
a. Music changes states or moods in your brain
b. Math/music connection
c. Music helps memory
11. the use of graphic organizer
12. drawing
13. humour
14. discussion
15. games
16. project based instruction
17. field trips
18. manipulatives
19. technology (important, but not more important than the other 19 points)
20. work study
a. on the job training


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