7 triggers that guarantee student engagement

fascinate1Okay . . . guarantee is a strong word.

Encourage might be better, maybe stimulate. Jump start?

But it doesn’t really matter what word we decide on.

I think using some of the ideas that Sally Hogshead pushes can help increase the chances for grabbing and keeping the attention of our kids.

Sally wrote a book called Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation that came out several years ago. What she talks about in the book are the powerful strategies that are used to influence thinking and decision making. Fascinate is targeted at marketers and ad folks but the ideas seem to be exactly what stressed-out teachers are looking for.

Economists have always said that to get people to do something, you have to provide incentives.

So . . . imagine a middle school teacher trying to elicit engagement and excitement about the Compromise of 1850 with 13 year-olds. What to do? Sally has some suggestions . . . seven to be exact. She calls them triggers. A trigger is “a deeply-rooted means of arousing intense interest.”

Sally says it just a matter of picking, choosing and combining the right triggers and your kids will be eating out of your hand.

So what do these triggers look like?

Trigger One – Lust

And I know what you’re thinking. Sex and students – not a good mix. But Sally says lust is about more than sex. Maybe we can use the word passion. You only have to go as far as watching the people in line outside of an Apple store when the iPad came out, the smell of a new car or the incredible taste of chocolate-covered bacon to get what she’s talking about. It’s about stimulating all the senses of your audience.

You want to use this trigger to try and create a total sensory experience.

How to integrate lust into your instruction:

  • Create a welcoming classroom environment. Clear out the clutter in your room, hang attractive posters, arrange tables or chairs in small groups.
  • Use a variety of media to appeal to different senses. Use music as kids come into the room and during instruction. Think about food and the power taste has. One teacher I know even used the smell of fireworks while her class watched battle clips from the movie Glory to imprint memories.
  • Create great-looking slides for your presentations. There are some basic design principles that can help. And don’t forget to apply the same design principles to your handouts.
  • Basically remember that everything your students see, hear, smell, taste and touch impacts learning and engagement.

Trigger Two – Mystique

Mystique is seductive. Mystique compels people to want to find out more. The brain is designed to solve problems and we need to find ways to incorporate that into what we do.

How to use mystique in your instruction:

Trigger Three – Alarm

Alarm hits our survival mechanism. It pokes people and forces them to take action.

How to use alarm in your instruction:

  • Clearly spell out expectations and consequences – good and bad. These expectations should focus on classroom management issues and academics.
  • Make deadlines clear.
  • Use surprising hooks to catch students’ attention at the beginning of lessons and units.

Trigger Four – Vice

Sally says that this trigger encourages new behaviors. One person commented that vice is going “just over” the edge of what is acceptable behavior.

Bland and predictable is safe but it rarely changes behavior. Too often, we teach history in bland and predictable ways. When we do, kids rarely learn anything. We need to be willing to go beyond predictable.

How to integrate vice into your instruction:

  • Share all of history – not just the happy, cheery bits but the ugly and dirty as well.
  • Be willing to bend a bit when it comes to traditional educational practice – have your kids use cell phones to do research & respond to prompts, for example.
  • Encourage kids to create counterfactual history, the “what if” scenarios that let kids imagine all sorts of historical possibilities.
  • Every once in a while, admit that you don’t really know very much about a particular topic and allow them to become “10 minute experts.”

Trigger Five – Prestige

Think of prestige as your brand. In the “real” world, people will pay money to be associated with prestigious brands. In education, your task is to find ways to make yourself and your content prestigious.

How to integrate prestige into your instruction:

  • Sally says that sometimes you have to “borrow” prestige by connecting with other well-known people in the field – so be sure to cite famous authors, books and magazines when teaching.
  • Live where the kids live – if you don’t already have an academic online presence, you need one. Create a Facebook page for your classes, publish a blog, use tools like Remind101 to communicate with your kids concerning academic issues.
  • Continue working to connect historical themes with current issues.

Trigger Six – Power

Show strong leadership and your students will be captivated. We’re all attracted to power and prone to obey it. Use the power trigger by projecting certainty and taking control of situations.

How to integrate power into your instruction:

  • Know your content. Know your content. Know your content.
  • When speaking, be firm, confident and don’t use weak words such as
    – kind of, sort of, rather, somewhat, really, pretty and any self-deprecating phrases
  • Be clear and concise when giving instructions.

Trigger Seven – Trust

Sally suggests that trust is built up by being consistent over time. If your audience trusts you, they will be fascinated. So focus on building trusting relationships with your students.

How to integrate trust into your instruction:

  • Be consistent in your classroom management style & message.
  • Create a safe classroom environment.
  • Greet students at the door.
  • Work to find out more about your students.
  • Use positive presuppositions when speaking with your kids.

I’m still wrapping my head around these seven triggers. And I know that it’s not possible (and sometimes not even desirable) to make direct connections between business theories and education. But it seems like Sally’s suggestions on how to influence buying behaviors do have some similarities with education’s attempt to influence learning behaviors.

I also like how Sally suggests that we each have a specific combination of triggers that we use best. She provides a test that helps you understand which combination you use and suggestions on how to better use others. (In case you’re curious . . . the two triggers that work best for me? Lust and mystique.)

I’d be curious to hear what others think. Are Sally’s ideas transferable to the classroom?

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

3 thoughts on “7 triggers that guarantee student engagement

  1. These are spot-on and should be applied to the classroom. Very motivational. Thanks for sharing! I love using Alarm (surprising hooks) and vice (the good, bad, and the ugly) in my lessons and the kids love it too.

    1. Cindy,

      Thanks for the comment! I really think a lot of great teachers do this sort of stuff already. They just don’t realize it and so aren’t planning for it to happen intentionally.

      Good luck as you finish out the school year!


  2. I thought of this as a mixed bag. I appreciate many of the suggestions she has, especially for knowing content and establishing trust. However, I know of some circumstances where these tips may not be applicable. I could use all of these tips in a general education classroom but I work in special education where phone use is a battle and sensory integration may occur. Plus, we are limited on technological resources and not all of our students have phones to research or computers at home nor at school to be engaged online. I think I would need to modify her tips in order to engage my type of students. None the less, her ideas are validating what excellent teachers already do or try to do in their setting.

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