How Do I Get My Students to Buy In?

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Building buy-in is one of the most important goals of the school year's opening weeks.
"When learners feel like they have ownership over the learning space, it immediately becomes a more powerful, engaging place for them!"

Building student buy-in should be one of every teacher’s main goals during the opening weeks of the new school year. When students believe that school is worthwhile, exciting and focused on building them a bright, successful future, it sets them up to have a productive, engage time in class. On the other hand, if school doesn’t feel authentic and learning seems like something being “done to” students rather than being “done by” students, it significantly damages morale throughout the learning community and minimizes the power of academic takeaways.

Getting students to buy into school generally and your class in particular can be tricky, especially if you’re a new teacher or piloting a new methodology that has you rethinking the classroom practices you’ve refined over the years. Here are some helpful and positive tips to help you build buy-in in your classroom:

Provide Voice in Shaping the Learning Community
The biggest problem with childhood, from a child’s perspective, is the lack of freedom and truly empowered decision-making. Most school-aged people have minimal power or say when it comes to what they eat, where they can go or even what clothes they get to wear. This lack of voice and authenticity is a major pinch point in the education process and one of the leading causes of disengagement. By providing students with some degree of voice and choice, educators can help learners understand that school is not a one-way relationship in which teachers have all the power and students do all the work.

One classic first-week activity that empowers learners in this way is inviting students to take part in creating the official list of classroom rules and expectations. When learners feel like they have ownership over the learning space, it immediately becomes a more powerful, engaging place for them, and the rules they create are more likely to be followed and enforced by peers. By inviting the class to brainstorm rules and expectations in this way, you can actually create a self-regulating culture of high engagement and accountability much more effectively than with teacher-dictated rules.

Set Academic & Personal Goals
One of the biggest and simplest obstacles to academic buy-in is the fact that students don’t see school as a powerful, purposeful place. Although they might not admit it, the vast majority of students don’t see the inherent value in curriculum or content - those who are motivated to learn the material simply learn because they are motivated to do so while those who don’t have that internal motivation struggle to find the relevancy of school to their lives. For your students to buy into your approach, classroom and the idea of school in general, they need to see a clear connection between education and real life.

One of the best ways to forge that connection is by having students set goals in the first weeks of the school year. Goal-setting makes the learning experience much more purposeful by being transparent with students about where they are going and what they need to learn. This process is additionally powerful if students are pushed to consider not just obvious learning goals (“I need to master single-digit multiplication and division by the end of the year”) but also authentic personal goals (“I want to gain computer skills that will help me turn my handwritten stories into fully illustrated and printable books”). When students set goals in this way, it builds excitement for learning and strengthens the connection between school and real life, both of which support buy-in and help get your academic year started on the right foot.

Offer Them a Personalized Experience
Young learners don’t like to be treated like robots being assembled in a factory. While they may appreciate the importance of certain baseline skills or knowledge, they naturally resent the idea that everybody should think, act, learn or demonstrate their learning in exactly the same way. If your students feel constrained or marginalized by the “teach the room” methodology, that approach will only disengage the whole class from top to bottom and obliterate buy-in. In order to win learners’ trust in the 21st century, you must show them that the learning experience has something unique to offer each of them.

Personalized learning (PL) is a growing methodology that helps students build self-knowledge and use that information to power a truly individualized and engaging learning experience. While fully personalized learning is not the default in classrooms around the country yet, you can use some principles of PL to build buy-in early in the school year. Encourage your students to tell you about topics that interest them, hobbies away from school and other aspects of their daily life which can help form powerful access points for content and skills. Although getting to know your students on a personal level can be daunting, exercises like creating a Learner Profile can unlock incredible insights for teachers and help students understand that their teachers are there to offer them a relevant, meaningful experience.