Fostering engagement in the classroom

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

Muthu Sir flashes a photograph of gently rolling hills on the smart board and poses a question to the class, “Is there any evidence in this picture that the land was sculpted by glaciers?”

Predictably, Ashi’s and Raunak’s hands shoot up like rockets. As the duo has already answered earlier questions, Muthu Sir waits for other hands to go up, however tentatively. “Look carefully. Do you see any evidence of snow or ice?”

“No, Sir,” blurts Vinay, without even raising his hand.
“Hands please,” reminds Muthu Sir, but coaxes Vinay to elaborate. “Then what do you see?”
“Hills, Sir, with grass,” the boy obediently chimes in.
“That’s correct. Can you describe the shape of the hills, Harmeet?” persists the teacher.
“They are…not steep,” Harmeet haltingly answers.
“That’s right,” encourages the teacher, “they are gentle hills. “Can anyone compare the two sides of the hill in the middle?” he cajoles.

Minu raises her hand gingerly, “They are different.”
“Yes, can you tell me how?” the teacher presses on.
Minu stares at the board and then looks down at her desk.
Muthu Sir calls on Amir to elucidate.

“Sir, one side is slightly more sloping…like an inverted spoon,” the boy responds.
“Exactly,” avers Muthu Sir, “now what glacial feature resembles an inverted spoon?”

Niti perks up, “A drumlin, Sir.”
“Excellent, Niti. Now, Minu, can you describe the shape of the hill?”
“Sir, it’s like an inverted spoon,” she responds more confidently this time. “And, the hill is a drumlin which has been shaped by a glacier.”
“Great answer,” encourages Muthu Sir as he soldiers on, “Is a drumlin caused by glacial erosion or deposition?”

The above exchange in a fictitious Grade VII classroom exemplifies a few crucial “techniques” that master teachers employ. In his book, Teach Like a Champion, educationist Doug Lemov has distilled his detailed and astute observations of master teachers in action into 49 techniques. While Lemov acknowledges that “Great teaching is an art” and individual teachers may have distinctive styles, he provides useful and actionable tools that teachers may deploy to enhance their teaching. In this article, I describe three techniques that teachers may use to set high expectations and deliver engaging lessons to all students.

The first, which Lemov calls “No Opt Out,” involves returning to a student who fails to answer a question accurately the first time. In the above scenario, Minu does not respond when Muthu Sir asks her how the two sides of the hill differ. Instead of humiliating Minu when she exhibits diffidence to answer the question, the teacher shifts the spotlight to other students. However, he does not forget that Minu hemmed and hawed when he posed this question. So, after a few exchanges, he returns to Minu and this time, she gives a complete answer.

This practice of returning to a student who does not answer a question or gives an incorrect response imparts several crucial lessons. Learners recognize that their state of not knowing something is temporary and can be repaired. Further, shy and hesitant students gradually build confidence as they also experience the thrill of giving the right answer in front of their classmates. Thus, pupils don’t bracket themselves so readily into categories like “those who know” and “those who don’t.” Third, the teacher also signals to students that you cannot get away by looking away or not answering. Students will realize soon enough that their teacher is bound to return to them, and hence are likely to pay attention with a razor-like focus. Without belittling anyone, the teacher communicates to the class that he expects all students to give the right answer, albeit in their own time.

Another technique that Muthu Sir employs is “Stretch It.” Muthu Sir does not rest with a single right answer. He stretches his students to examine the picture and refine their thinking. Once they are able to recognize and name a drumlin, he urges them to extend their thinking. And, this is a powerful method for “differentiating instruction” according to Lemov. Asking for further explanation, an alternative way to answer a question, a more precise word or evidence to support a claim are some of the ways in which you can get students to dig deeper and seek further. Ending a class with an unanswered question also gives students fodder to mull over. You can then begin the next class with the challenge you raised the previous time.

An engrossing lesson also demands that students get an effective “cognitive workout”. In a technique called “Ratio,” Lemov suggests that the teacher keep in mind the amount of work she is doing vis a vis what she expects of students. Instead of relying on the typical chalk and talk method, where the teacher exerts herself for a significant duration, an educative lesson is one where students are “on-task, focused, and productive” for the most part. In addition to posing questions, teachers may periodically ask students to state the key points, summarize what they are discussing or provide multiple examples to illustrate a concept. By facilitating active learning, the teacher also garners students’ attention. The teacher also has to be conscious of calling on different students instead of relying on a predictable few to provide answers. This ensures that the entire class is awake, alert and attentive.

By adapting the techniques of No Opt Out, Stretch It and Ratio, teachers convey that they expect all students to be actively engaged and gaining and growing during a class.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. She can be reached at

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