One of the most-asked questions in education forums these days is, “What is the secret to increasing student engagement?”  Though this is a very rich topic with lots of conflicting research surrounding it, I’ll offer what I’ve learned, distilled down to a simple step.  In my experience, this might be the 20% that will yield 80% of the benefit.  A single idea can make a big difference if you’re struggling to keep students actively engaged in your classroom.  What is this simple step?

Attention Capture

All student engagement must begin with attention capture.  It sounds obvious, but how much thought do you put into capturing the attention of diverse learners?  It’s easy to imagine that students will value the material for its own sake, that if you just explain enough about it, they will love it like you do.  This is not the case in your classroom, and it’s not the case in the world where people are always competing for your attention.  Marketers, social networks, television – the list goes on.  In order to break through the noise, you have to capture, at least for a bit, your subject’s attention.  So, how do you assure attention capture?

Incongruity Is The Key

An incongruity is something that just doesn’t add up.  Something novel, something puzzling, something that demands attention.  We see this strategy leveraged all the time in advertising?  A talking gekko, picketing cows telling us to “Eat Mor Chikin” … there are incongruities to capture our attention and capture our dollars everywhere.  Ever tried starting every math class off with a cartoon?  How about starting every social studies class with mystery name students have to identify (think Paul David Hewson…the real name of Bono)?  Try engaging students’ minds with a riddle or a contradiction and see what a difference it can make.

Incongruities Increase Student Engagement

Our brains, and our students’ brains have a tendency to want to stay on autopilot.  To increase student engagement, we would be wise to leverage the power of incongruities.  Attention captured this way is much more likely to learn something new in the process of resolving the incongruity.  In fact, research shows that the need to resolve an incongruity is so strong that students are very willing to accept your instruction if it helps to solve the puzzle.  Stay Unpredictable, My Friends!