By: Graciela Livas
Learning in Motion Specialist and Ballet Director at American School Foundation of Monterrey
Doctoral Student from Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education
In our interconnected, global community and economy, marketing has taught us that packaging is everything. The desired and even needed product, packaged in the wrong way, will plummet in the markets. Customers will be pushed away from it rather than towards it without giving it a fair chance. Conversely, the right package inspires wonder and awe. It attracts and excites customers. We actively live by this concept day in and day out: marketing and packaging impacts our products, services, activities, and basically our way of life. Does our school system acknowledge and embrace this notion? Have we taken the time, as educators, to evaluate what our packaging is communicating to our students? Have we been vigilant to seek understanding of the individuality of our students and how this packaging might need to be tailored based on their uniqueness? Or is the phrase “packaging is everything” exempt from our classrooms?
To give an example, a student who has developed anxiety towards writing, needs an appropriate and unique packaging to a writing assignment in order to allow the student to approach the task with confidence and joy of exploration, rather than run completely away from it. The aim of personalized packaging is not to deceive but rather to ignite curiosity, to spark an interest, and to demonstrate the benefit and ease of the product. With our students, each assignment should take them one step further up their ladder of growth, confidence, and self-knowledge. Yet, this cannot happen when the student is not willing to interact authentically with the product. So, what does packaging look like for an academic task? What are the components we can look at as educators to mold and transform them for each unique learner in our classrooms to promote interest and student buy-in? Student-directed activities, entry-points and learning pathways, scaffolding and pre-activities, word-choice, and good old fashioned fun, are simple areas to explore and modify in our pedagogy to achieve desirable packaging for students.
Student-directed activities take student voice integration within our classrooms to another level. Current common practice encourages students to bring their unique voice into our structured classrooms, curriculum and assignments. Student-directed academic tasks take this further to allow their unique voice and interests to guide the whole task, embedding our standards and benchmarks within these student-directed assignments. If packaging for a commercial product is only superficial, people will quickly pick up on it and not consume it. Complete student direction, with teacher guidance, allows for authentic student choice and voice assignments to flourish. Options such as student directed and teacher facilitated enrichment clusters provide a perfect platform for this packaging and improve student buy-in and engagement. Enrichment clusters are “...student centered- directed by student interest and the development of authentic products for real audiences,” (Renzulli et al. 2014, pg 2) where students work within mixed-aged, interest based groups to provide real life products or solutions for real audiences.
Entry-Points and Learning Pathways
Diverse entry-points and learning pathways personalize academic tasks and therefore customize packaging for each student. Taking a multiple intelligence approach, and a strength-based approach to each individual child’s education could also be monumental for student task engagement, and ultimately their educational journey. Identifying, embracing, and interweaving these unique cognitive profiles into lesson construction creates a whole different learning environment for the individual learner, as well as for the whole classroom community. Providing alternate student choice for the entry points of instruction, as well as for the learning pathways within a specific lesson, encourages understanding and growth to be obtained through students’ strengths. Providing student choice for entry points through which they will master basic skills, students increase their opportunities for success. “In turn, these successes result in improving students’ academic self-efficacy, or confidence in themselves as learners. This positive self-perception motivates students to exert more effort in areas that are more problematic for them” (Baum et al. 2005, p.60). Students quickly identify where they thrive and where others shine. True group work and community collaboration starts to take place. Students do not feel forced into having to work but rather, through entry point packages that are enticing to them, shift towards a self-guided, self-regulated, self-created track, creating a learning pathway for students to thrive both individually as well as collectively. With the right packaging, the issue quickly shifts from forced engagement towards extended engagement, where students seek to pursue tangent ideas that have emerged, add to their group’s projects, or guide conversations about how to tweak the assignment somehow to add more depth and breadth respecting their own vision of their assignment.
Scaffolding and Pre-activities
Appropriate scaffolding and pre-activities are paramount in our support of students and must be presented case by case to every teacher working with the individual as we advocate for individual students. “Vygotsky coined a definition of instructional scaffolding that focused on teacher practices. He defined this as, ‘the role of teachers and others in supporting the learner’s development and providing support structures to get to that next stage or level’” (Castagno-Dysart et al. 2019). The use of scaffolding within an assignment presents a package the student deems manageable and exciting at first. As it extends an attainable, yet intriguing product, the student is compelled to it and feels both capable of achieving the task at hand, as well as curious to learn and grow from it. Utilizing scaffolding to provide this sweet spot called the “zone of proximal development” presented by Vygotsky, should not only be regarded towards the academic rigor within the task, but extended to all the components of it such as executive functions skills, social skills, etc. In the example of a student with writing anxiety, scaffolding a writing essay task to start by producing a powerpoint presentation with outlines of the information on each slide makes the assignment approachable. Once the essay is introduced, it presents less of an anxiety since the student has already produced a whole outline within the powerpoint presentation. Attractive packaging helps us all engage and be enticed initially into a product. Likewise, the original outline and scaffold of the academic task is paramount to the initial student’s attitude towards it. Scaffolding and pre-activities may move our packaging towards a more attractive one and therefore provide a greater platform for student success. “Allowing students to engage in pre-writing activities that interest them results in better language, more creative ideas, and a willingness to put their ideas on paper” (Bridges Academy 2012, p.19). Just exactly which pre-activities are ideal for each individual learner is somewhat of a science. Knowing who students are as whole individuals is what allows us to best match our students’ interests and strengths, and therefore create the ideal packing for them in the shape of pre-activities and scaffolding. Integrating detailed and purposeful observation of students both inside and outside of the classroom to better understand them as whole individuals is a practice that needs to be advocated for in our schools and within all staff members in order to succeed in matching the best practices and assignment packaging for each of our students.
The choice of words are also a form of packaging. Just like scaffolded lessons and products aid with the student’s perception of an assignment, the actual words we use play a crucial role in the packaging for the student’s interpretation of the assignment. As described by the author, “using a substitute word such as authoring or producing can be effective, as well as renaming your writing center author’s corner” (Bridges Academy 2020, p.13). A close look at which words trigger anxiety and push back for students must be taken and analyzed. These words will not only allow for the student to approach with greater comfort and ease, but will also broaden the scope of material produced. Integrating purposeful word choice into end products is also key. “Make it a place where students can submit podcasts, storyboards, letters, and multimedia products as well as more traditional pieces” (Bridges Academy 2020, p.13). This will create a shift in ending points which in turn may provide a more attractive assignment from the beginning. Giving students voice in their end product, and what it is called, is key to exciting and engaging packages to reach authentic audiences.
“Play is an activity enjoyed for its own sake. It is our brain's favorite way of learning and maneuvering” (Ackerman 1999). When students’ curiosity is ignited by what they deem ‘fun’ and through what they consider themselves ‘capable’ of plowing through, or ‘good at’, engagement soars. Strong’s quote, “Students who are engaged persist, despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work” (Baum et al. 2005, p.67) clearly illustrates the positive impact of student engagement. Students want to be engaged. They crave activity. They long for entertainment. The real trick is understanding each child’s interpretation of this. Not all students will be entertained and have fun through a math equation, although some will. However, if we provide academic assignments and tasks through a fun packaging, students will engage and thrive. Not only will engagement rise, but their success and growth will be greater. “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behaviour; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself. Play contains in a concentrated form, as in the focus of a magnifying glass, all developmental tendencies; it is as if the child tries to jump above his usual level” (Vygotsky, 1967). Providing authentically fun activities for our students to learn through is pivotal, not only for our youngest of learners, but for everyone. Activities such as escape rooms, and other such platforms in which students engage naturally outside of the classroom provide great packaging ideas for our academic instruction.
Our world is one in which everything and everyone is pulling for our attention. Our students live in this world. As educators we must understand the rules of engagement. We must strive to understand our students holistically as individuals, what intrigues them, what interests them, what are their strengths, what moves them. The greater our understanding, the better we become as agents for their growth, providing guidance through packages that attract their attention and enable them to be more than fountains of ‘book knowledge’. Having all the knowledge in the world without the passion to engage, the ability to apply, to interweave, to dissect and retrieve what is pertinent and essencial will fail to move us forward. Inevitably, knowledge lacking empathy and passion to care enough to use understanding and problem-solving skills with a moral compass, has proven to fall short of what humanity needs. Is not learning more easily and authentically revealed in real-life scenarios that engage student passion? Engaging our students as they problem-solve through well thought out activities that engage their understanding, interests, strengths and challenges hopefully gets us to our ultimate aim: for students to take these new understandings with them for the remainder of their lives, build even more understandings upon them, and continually interweave all understandings to problem-solve, create, and tackle any obstacles they encounter in their future lives for the good of themselves as well as humanity.
Ackerman, D. (1999). Deep play. New York: Random House.
Baum, S., Viens, J., & Slatin, B. (2005). Multiple intelligences in the elementary classroom: A teacher's toolkit. New York: Teachers College Press.
Castagno-Dysart, D., Matera, B., & Traver, J. (2019, April 23). The importance of instructional scaffolding. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/the-importance-of-instructional-scaffolding
Glen Ellyn Media. (2012). Writing and the 2e learner: issues and strategies: a series of articles from Bridges Academy. Winfield, IL.
Renzulli, J. S., Gentry, M. L., & Reis, S. M. (2014). Enrichment clusters a practical plan for real-world, student-driven learning. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Vygotsky, Lev S. 1967. “Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.” Soviet Psychology 5:6–18.