Engaging our students is one of the big topics around the teachers’ lounges right now, or at least the virtual teachers’ lounges.
Sometimes it’s presented in terms of educational trends of the future: our students are plugged in multitaskers, and we can’t expect them to sit still and pay attention without lots of multisensory input, preferably electronic.
Sometimes it’s presented in a curmudgeonly style, with the author wagging his whiskers (or hers — these are metaphorical whiskers) and moaning that today’s students just don’t have the attention span that students used to have, and that what we need is discipline, not more bells and whistles.
This topic is personal for me right now. I’m putting up my online course for the year. The average online course is, as you may know, dull to the point of near torture, and I’m determined to make mine better. In fact, more engaging.
My online course is more colorful than most. Not because I believe that flashiness is always more engaging, but because I think it says, “Hey, we’re going to have fun! It’s worth paying attention! Don’t be sad about having to take this class!”
That’s the same reason we decorate our rooms and smile at our students when they arrive in the classroom, right?
I’m being challenged by the difficulty of making things engaging at a distance. The first day of my face to face class, I’m going to give them an exotic candy to experience and write about and then help them learn to provide peer feedback for one another’s in-class paragraphs. How can I replicate the multisensory hands-on nature of that lesson for people alone before their screens?
But the problem of engaging students is always about distance, I think.
Their distance from us. Their distance from the topic. The distance between what we’d like to be teaching and what we have to teach because it’s on the test. The distance between knowing how to add and having the multiplication tables memorized.
When we try to capture their attention across that distance, we often rely on entertaining them rather than engaging them. Worse, we sometimes rely on bribing them or bullying them into paying attention, or at least into pretending to do so. Don’t forget, people who are given extrinsic rewards for doing something quickly decided that it must not have any intrinsic rewards, or we wouldn’t be offering them bribes to do it. That’s one way we’ve managed to bring up a cadre of people who never read for pleasure.
I’m not against entertainment, by any means. If you can learn something in a fun way, you might as well. One of my kids had a third grade teacher who complained that she wouldn’t work hard on dull classwork. “Most adults spend their lives doing boring things,” this teacher explained, possibly noticing my lack of enthusiasm for dull classwork.
I didn’t bring my kids up to spend their lives doing boring things. And since I know people who are sincerely excited about soil, cooking, math, books, grammar, childcare, fish, and computers, I think I can say with certainty that adults really don’t have to spend their lives doing boring things, if they choose to do engaging things instead. There are enough things around that each of us can find something that excites us, even if it doesn’t excite anyone else. We might as well encourage that excitement in our students.
But working hard to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile is part of the excitement. Striving together to improve something is exciting. Overcoming obstacles and achieving things is exciting. For us, and for our students. Who aren’t really all that different from us.
Lessons are engaging when students are doing something.
Thinking, for example. Solving problems. Figuring things out. Learning new things. Making things. Discovering things. Using information in new ways. Charting a path from here to there — even if “there” is memorizing the multiplication tables.
The new year is a good time to think about how we can make our classes engaging for our students and for ourselves.