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It can be awkward and disheartening to realize that students no longer respond to many of our previously successful instructional strategies and approaches like they used to. Rarely, though, does this realization come suddenly. It may start with a vague feeling that something is different. Our influence may seem to be slowly waning. We may even find ourselves noticing that the minority of students who have always been less engaged is growing in number and may soon become most of the class.

Our first reaction may be to blame the students. After all, our approach has been successful and effective with students in the past. We have not changed our expectations or modified our approach. Therefore, it must be the students.

It is probably correct that the students have changed. We may live or work in a community whose population is shifting. We may have more students in our classes for whom English is not their first language. More students may come from families who do not have a history of formal education and don’t offer the guidance and support to which we are accustomed. Many of today’s students have spent their early years in a world rich in and supported by technology and thus expect high levels of activity and entertainment. For some, family and economic disruption may also play a role in how much attention and investment they lend toward their learning. It may even be that what students experienced during the pandemic left them valuing learning differently.

Nevertheless, choosing to blame students will not meet the challenge or solve the problem we face. Expecting students to change is not realistic or productive. Neither does it make sense to lower our expectations and compromise the futures of our students because they present a different profile.

At the same time, this is not a cause for guilt or shame. Our expertise is not in question. Rather, this challenge is about how to adjust and match the circumstances to achieve the outcomes we desire and expect. Still, the fact is that there is only one person’s behavior we can change: our own. As much as we might hope otherwise, if we want to reach and support students to success, we need to adapt to them and their learning needs, interests, and readiness. Our goals for and commitment to nurturing the learning of our students do not need to change, but the path to reach our goals and the application of our commitment will have to shift. Here are seven actions to consider and get started.

First, we can step back and reflect on what exactly seems to be changing. Observing trends and understanding the nature of what is changing can reveal options and opportunities to adjust. If there is new learning we need to gain, understanding what is happening can help us to seek out and sort promising strategies and techniques to build, adapt, and apply.

Second, we would do well to learn all that we can about the students we are teaching. There may have been a time when we could assume much about our students because they came from familiar backgrounds and with familiar and even shared life experiences. The more we know about the lives of our students, the better able we are to make connections and provide useful examples.

Third, we might identify the approaches and strategies to which students respond most positively. We can increase our employment of what is working while diminishing those with which students do not connect.

Fourth, we can collect the observations and experiences of colleagues regarding what seems to work in their practice and create paths for ongoing collaboration. The experiences of colleagues can add to our arsenal of options. Further, our learning from colleagues can expand the variety of activities, strategies, and approaches we employ to “cast a wide net” and capture what seems to work.

Fifth, we would do well to explore with students their perspectives on what works for them. We can create a safe space for dialogue where students can share their experiences and offer ideas about how they learn best. Small-group discussions, one-on-one meetings, and surveys can offer a wealth of information to use in planning and prioritizing instructional practices and learning experiences.

Sixth, we might involve students in planning and leading learning activities. When students participate in setting standards, establishing criteria, and even creating assessments, their levels of ownership and commitment grow. We might share examples of standards-meeting work and give students opportunities to analyze and brainstorm ways to have their work match the level of excellence.

Finally, we can advocate with colleagues and others to design curricula and provide materials and experiences that connect with the lives of students and still meet established learning standards. As student populations change, often the examples and other content to which students are exposed may no longer connect with they see and experience. Providing a meaningful context for curricular goals can make a big difference for students who otherwise experience a disconnect with what they are asked to learn.

We may not be able to prevent the changing profile of the students we teach. However, we can build our understanding of the challenge, engage students in identifying potential changes, collect and develop a range of strategies and approaches in response, and modify learning experiences and content to reflect and connect with the lives of our students—and lift them to success.

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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