Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teaching Effectively: Other Ways To Engage

Last time, we talked about ways to make lecture interesting. In doing so, we treated lecture as though it was a smart and useful way to teach someone information. That was wrong! Lecture is a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are. There’s not a single useful thing that I ever learned from a lecture! Not one! Not even this concept of evil lectures that I couldn’t have thought of without actually sitting in a lecture. Well...okay fine. Maybe I did learn one thing from a lecture, But just that one.
Jokes aside, straight lecture (eg. someone talking without interruption) may be one of the least effective ways to get students to remember information for longer than the time before the next test. At its worst, it’s not not much more than an info dump that students will write down and possibly study. One could even say it’s the professoring equivalent of telling versus showing, and every kid who’s taken a creative writing class can tell you how terrible telling is.
So, with that in mind, what are ways other than lecture that teachers can use to share materials?
One things students (and people in general) are excellent at doing is solving problems and putting together knowledge from known facts. It’s one of the reasons some find math so entertaining. So, if happen to be teaching a math class, why spend time lecturing when students could otherwise be actually solving the problems?
It’s worth noting here that there will always be concepts that need to be talked through or that students just don’t have enough information to intuit. These are prime times for lecture, but try to avoid using lecture to reinforce something students have already learned through doing. My current stats professor has the bad habit of doing that, and most in the class have started surfing their computers instead of paying attention. And, why would they pay attention? They already understand the concept well enough to apply it, and that’s all they need to know. Why spend valuable brainpower listening to someone else explain something that you could explain just as well yourself?
Along these same lines, students are much more engaged and motivated when they’re doing something. If you’re teaching a lesson on the different branches of government, an excellent way to get that message across would be to have students set up their own mock-Congress and start thinking about and voting on bills. They’ll likely come up with some wild ideas to be passed into ‘law,’ but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like the real world. As long as you can get the votes, you can do anything you want.
Another example of having students do lessons instead of listen to them could be during an acting class. There are thousands of books written on acting and acting theory. You could read all of them, memorize all the concepts, and still not know the first thing about actually acting in front of people. The same goes with writing. I once had a writing professor who loved to lecture (who’s also the author of a certain book about 7 killings). His lectures were actually pretty entertaining - he has a great sense of humor - but I didn’t learn much in that class about writing because we didn’t do it very often. As such, the class felt very underwhelming.
Some students are also quite good at learning material on their own. - I have two friends from high-school who basically taught themselves algebra because they wanted to be able to take Calculus their Senior year. - This route wouldn’t be advisable for all students, but it could be an option for those who want to get ahead and feel confident enough in their learning to go off on their own. From experience, I can also say that teaching yourself can be one of the best ways of learning. It forces you to draw your own connections from the material, which makes the material more memorable. From a teacher’s perspective, these students who worked ahead are also in a prime position to teach their peers potentially difficult concepts. Quite often, it’s easier to learn from someone who just mastered a concept than it is to learn from someone who learned the concept a long time ago.
Classroom discussions are also great ways to teach important material. They let students draw their own connections, and they’re a great space for letting students share their connections with the rest of the group. They build interpersonal relationships and build all that important personal communication magic that psychologists always say is so important. They’re also fun. There’s not enough fun in the education system. (If there’s one take-away from these blogs it should be that we should make learning more enjoyable. So what if the rest of the world is a dark place full of business meetings where no one laughs? That doesn’t mean we can’t make learning about it more amusing.)

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