ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Lesson Planning for Engagement

Post written by Fiona S. Baker, a teacher educator with an interest in responsive classroom professional development. She has more than 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, workshop presenter, school consultant, and faculty member at universities and colleges, and she currently teaches at the Emirates College for Advanced Education in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Connect with Baker by e-mail at This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

Why is it that after all the teacher's diligent lesson planning, classroom learners are often disengaged and have little desire to apply effort? There may be myriad reasons for this, but lesson-planning principles and strategies can help draw in learners.

All learners implicitly ask four fundamental questions:

  • Does the teacher know me or care about me?
  • What am I learning?
  • Why is it important for me to learn this?
  • Why would I be interested in learning this?

Teachers can successfully answer these questions through lesson planning that engages learners from the beginning.

Does the Teacher Know Me or Care About Me?

Experience can establish confidence and skill with situations or just as easily establish fear and distrust, so teachers should give learners opportunities to do their best. They should also provide stimulating activities and choices, which means knowing each learner and planning accordingly.

What does this learner most enjoy doing? What are his strengths and challenges? What does she have knowledge of? What does he value, admire, and appreciate? What is the context in which learning is taking place, and what is the culture? When teachers respond to these questions in their lesson planning, they cultivate a responsive, caring relationship that starts engaging learning.

If learners can align themselves with lessons that offer an outlet for their talent and appeal to who they are, they feel valued and engage in learning.

What Am I Learning?

Learners often do not know and understand what they are supposed to learn in a lesson. It is important to plan easily understandable lesson objectives and make them clear with accompanying diagrams, pictures, photographs, or other aids. If students know and understand what you are teaching, they will be more likely to be interested in the learning goals.

To help students understand why they are learning a lesson, teachers can

  • Ask interesting questions that relate to the lesson objectives, and anchor the objectives in meaningful, real-life experiences within the context of teaching and learning.
  • Begin with a role-play that brings the objectives to life and makes them meaningful.
  • Tell interesting stories or present cases that incorporate and relate to the lesson objectives.
  • Provide a fast-paced visual display to catch learners' attention, stimulate curiosity, and create interest in understanding the objectives.
  • Outline the objectives and have students restate them in their own words or discuss them with a peer.
  • Present an example of a desired skill objective in a meaningful context that will then be a focus of the lesson.

Why Is It Important for Me to Learn This?

Often learners do not know the relevance of teacher-selected content and skills. In other words, they do not understand how the new knowledge connects to their prior knowledge and wider world. It is important to motivate learners to think about how they can apply what they are learning and give students choices in meeting the learning objectives.

To help students understand the importance of the lesson's contents, teachers can

  • Discuss the learning objectives in relation to the course outline or with reference to previous learning.
  • Explain how the lesson content applies to real-world scenarios and future tasks.
  • Have students explain the learning objectives in their own words and discuss how the material is relevant to them.
  • Have students prepare before class by intentionally linking out-of-class and in-class activities. To prepare for the lesson, learners do something (e.g., read a textbook or article, complete a simulation or experiment, watch a video) that involves problem-solving, critical-thinking, and analytical reasoning skills, which encourage higher-order thinking.
  • Have learners collaborate in groups to establish their own thoughts on the relevance of the objectives. As an introduction to the value of lesson objectives, they can brainstorm "good-for"s (i.e., "What is an understanding of addition good for?").
  • Provide an overview of the lesson to help learners anticipate what they will be learning. They can then begin to think of strategies to help them achieve the lesson content. For example, if the lesson's goal is determine the weight of objects, students might decide to experiment by estimating their weight and then weigh themselves on a scale.
  • Present a graphic organizer (e.g., a frame, spider map, hierarchy map, Venn diagram) or an advance organizer to help students preview the lesson and show how the lesson content relates to the rest of the course or to cross-curricular areas.

Why Would I Be Interested in Learning This?

"What's in it for me?" is a question that drives many of the learners' decisions. But it's not always about what we will get from it, but how it will make us feel.

In learning, we are often inspired to do things for feelings of pride, compassion, sharing, safety, security, thrill, or excitement. Our subconscious mind helps us make appropriate decisions based on our experiences, motivations, and predictions of the rewards and risks associated with our actions. Learners may consider lessons dull, boring, and irrelevant unless they can develop a reason to engage with it and are attracted by a direct correlation to a meaningful life experience.

Teachers can help further learners' interest by

  1. Making a brief sales pitch. In 50 words or less, summarize the lesson and the value of learning it by involving critical-thinking and real-life skills. For example, "This lesson is about adding one or two more to a number. We start with five books and we add one more. How many do we have now? When there were five books, there was room on the shelf for them. Now our shelf is too small for the books; what should we do?"
  2. Describing what's in it for them. For example, "Think about when you receive birthday presents from your friends. You will be able to count them. Then, when your next friend arrives, you will be able to add one more. You will be able to keep track of the number of presents you have."
  3. Describing what the learner will be able to do. For example, "You should be able to add one more as you can keep track of what you have, so you'll know if you have lost one or if one has disappeared."
  4. Showing or describing what other learners have done. Tell and show students what their classmates have produced. This is powerful because it's an extension of the authority of word of mouth.

At the close of the lesson, teachers can recap by asking the learners to reflect on what they have learned, what they have gained from the lesson, how they will apply their learning in real life, and what they consider the value of what they've learned.

This approach means that learners critically think and reflect, instead of the teacher summarizing the lesson. For example, in a lesson about light and heavy objects, a student might say:

In today's lesson, I learned how to separate light objects from heavy ones. I did this by estimating the weight. I picked up each object and said which I thought was light and which was heavy. I asked my friends if they agreed. Then I weighed the objects on a scale to check if I was right. We discussed what makes something light or heavy. I know that if an object is made of metal, it is often heavy.

This is useful when we take a flight. My mother always pays for overweight baggage at the airport. I can take responsibility to pack the suitcases, because I know which objects are light and which are heavy. I can estimate the weight and use the scales to weigh the suitcases before we go to the airport.

When teachers have done the groundwork of building relationships with their learners, planning ways to authentically hook them into the lesson content, and fostering learners' critical thinking and reflection after the lesson, they help students develop responsibility for their own engagement and progress.

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