Inquiry Learning

The 6 Rules of Engagement in the Modern Classroom

Here's your go-to methods for every conceivable subject and grade.

If you’ve heard of the “rules of engagement” before, you know they are traditionally about military tactics. However, you can also probably guess the rules of engagement in the modern classroom are much different. They have nothing to do with force or protection, and instead, have everything to do with collaboration and inclusion. 

It’s a set of strategies for ensuring meaningful connection and deep learning take place in any class.

Today’s students are connected and informed. They want to enjoy learning that grabs their attention and keeps them interested and wanting to learn more. This is the goal of many instructional methods, especially inquiry-based learning. So, here are the top six rules of engagement in the modern classroom. There are, of course, many other ways to create and sustain engagement, but these are your go-to methods for every conceivable subject and grade.

1. Give the Learning to the Learners

You’d be hard-pressed to find any intellectual or emotional magic pill that will ensure engagement in the modern classroom. However, most sources agree on one thing: 

students show interest in learning when they are given agency over it.

Shifting responsibility for the learning to our students is the fist step in ensuring engagement because that’s where learning belongs. It isn’t teachers who create learning—only learners can do that through willingness and interest. Instead, the teacher’s role in the modern classroom is such that the pathways to learning are introduced and facilitated by them. However, it’s the students who ultimately must walk those paths and experience what’s on the way.

2. Provide Experiences That Foster Relationships

At Wabisabi Learning, we define Collaboration Fluency as team-working proficiency characterized by a learner’s ability to work cooperatively with both real and virtual partners in physical and virtual environments to solve real and simulated problems. However, collaboration involves so much more than that.

Humans are social beings. 

Some of the most rewarding experiences we have are when we work, play, and learn well with others. 

Collaboration and teamwork build understanding and empathy. They introduce minds that may never have crossed paths before into an arena where they can share everyday experiences and gained knowledge in achieving a common goal. The relationships that are built from solving problems together are organic and often sincere, and can last a lifetime and lead to even more incredible learning experiences. 

3. Use Inquiry-Based Learning

We’ve written before about the features of inquiry-based learning and why it has many advantages over other pedagogies, especially for our learners. In fact, we’ve developed a signature learning cycle around it that makes providing inquiry-based lessons in your classes both straightforward and highly rewarding.

But why do today’s students respond to it so well? 

It’s because inquiry equals interest in the classroom.

With a driving question to guide them that inspires contemplation and even more deep questions, learners will take the lead, and interest always precedes learning. If you’re looking for ideas with a real-world connection that students will love exploring, try these eight inquiry-based learning scenarios

4. Grow Along With Your Learners

According to Maryellen Weimer Ph.D., in the article Ways to Achieve Student Engagement, it’s important that we keep up with the changing needs of our learners in terms of maintaining a suitable level of engagement. She puts it this way: 

“An institution should never be satisfied with how it is promoting student engagement. As students change and new research evidence emerges, institutional practices should be adjusted. Engagement cannot just be promoted; it must also be maintained.”

It makes sense to keep up with those we teach. Only a few decades ago, we were witnessing the beginning of what became an unimagined pervasiveness of technology across all areas of life, including education. 

This is proof positive the world and our learners—and especially the means by which they can and will learn—is in a constant state of motion. 

To continue serving them as educators in the way they need and deserve, we must do what it takes to match that pace.

5. Use Fewer Questions, but More Essential Ones

One of the ten shifts of practice we write about in the book Future-Focused Learning is "essential and herding questions." It’s important because deep questioning leads to deep thinking when answers lead to more questions and more in-depth inquiry. 

It’s possible to fill the teaching space with simple question after question, but that’s not how we get students thinking and contemplating. In the end, it’s the quality of our questions that matters.

You’ll find it’s often just as simple as a reversal, like asking them, “What do you think?” Once you open that doorway, you’ll find a world of insights inside your learners just waiting to come out. 

All learning should begin with a thought-provoking question that doesn’t have an easy answer. 

The time it takes to discuss that question will offer so much benefit in terms of engagement, context, and relevance.

6. Show What’s in It for Them

One of the most stupefying questions any learner could ever ask us is, “Why do we need to learn this?” Just for the record, saying it’s part of the curriculum isn’t the correct answer, even if it’s true. Instead, we have an incredible opportunity to connect to the interests of our learners by putting content alongside their awareness of the world outside school.

Consider how what we teach will benefit our students. How will they use it beyond their formative years? 

What connections can you make to it in the real world? Where can you find instances or situations where such learning is being used right now? Most of all, what invokes an emotional response in our learners? The connections we make can inspire excitement, curiosity, or outrage as a result of the provocations we use. 

When you can do that, you’ve struck a nerve. You now have a student who is ready to respond, and above all, ready to learn.