Ever had that first class where you went over the syllabus and got any of the following reactions:
- blank stares
- “But, this is all for one semester?”
- frantic text messaging to another student across the room
You get the picture: unhappy, unmotivated, disinterested students = big teaching problems.
- Problem #1: The students aren’t unhappy.
- Reason: They have no stake in the work.
- Reason: They are caught in the details and don’t see the bigger picture.
- Problem #2: The students aren’t motivated.
- Reason: They don’t see the value in the learning process.
- Reason: They are aiming for the superficial short-term goal of a good grade.
- Problem #3: The students aren’t interested.
- Reason: They don’t see how this applies to them now.
- Reason: They don’t see how this will affect them in the future.
All of the above “problems” and “reasons” have a common denominator. The problems are problems of engagement. The reasons equate to an inability to translate topics such as the quadratic equation, or the lifespan of an ant, or love in Shakespeare’s sonnets to their lives. Hence, the reasons are lack of relevance and meaning.
“Every topic is interesting to the [student] that is relevant for that content, but you have to use some skill as a [teacher]. You have to use techniques like humor, or stories, or use the frustration of your [class] with problems that come up day in and day out.”
Well, she spoke these words, with some exception. I did substitute “student” for “audience”; “teacher” for “writer”; and “class” for the second use of “audience.” As you see, Sonia’s tips for copywriting are just as applicable to today’s classroom.
So I put her advice to work in my College Writing II classroom. Keeping in mind that, as Sonia points out, a topic is only interesting to a student who sees relevance in its content.
I kicked off the semester with not just the introductory look at the syllabus, but with two important elements:
- An entire brainstorming session:
- on the topic of why writing is relevant in general.
- why writing is relevant, specifically, for each student’s field of study.
- A Growth Journal entry:
- detailing the student’s self-evaluation of her strengths and weaknesses in writing.
- listing their goals for the semester and how that correlates with their larger career and/or life goals.
I kept a keen eye out for student engagement, student comments and questions, and their overall reaction.
Mind, Brain, and Education science (MBE) tells us in Principle #5 that when a student understands why a subject or topic is relevant to him, he desires to learn about it. Suddenly, the concerns die down and there is an upsurge of excitement and motivation. As Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa tells us, Principle #5 states:
“GREAT TEACHERS KNOW THAT THE SEARCH FOR MEANING IS INNATE IN HUMAN NATURE.”
When we work with our brains and within our natures, we are able to really harness the passion of our students and teach more effectively. Pointing out the meaning of what we are learning leads to greater motivation in the classroom, since our natural state is to seek out meaning. Hence, no person invests in something that he doesn’t have a stake in.
Furthermore, the Growth Journal reflection assignment guides the students into deep thinking. The Teaching Gap, by James Stigler and James Hiebert, tells us that deep reflection is essential to encouraging a propensity for lifelong learning. Stigler and Hiebert argue that deep reflection is one of the major differences between US schools and higher ranking schools in PISA tests.
Encouraging students to do deep reflection in relation to their own goals ties back into generating meaning. It also is considered Best Classroom Practice #10 by Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa:
“SHARED, EXPLICIT LEARNING OBJECTIVES KEEP EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE AND IMPROVE THE CHANCES OF SUCCESS.”
When the students have their own goals that they are working toward and a journal to document their process, they engage in deep reflection at the same time as improving their chances for success. When they know what they are aiming for, they are more likely to achieve it and are motivated to work toward it.
Once a student realizes that the content is relevant in general, as well as specifically to him, you have captured his attention. For example, in my course, I started with why writing is relevant across the board. We discussed how blogs are now a fundamental source of marketing for professionals across all fields: from social workers to web designers, from physicians to photographers, and beyond.
The importance of being able to communicate effectively via email was highlighted. For instance, we talked about statistics that show, “More than 90 percent of mid-career professionals recently cited the ‘need to write effectively’ as a skill ‘of great importance’ in their day-to-day work.” After discussing the general career and life reasons to hone their writing skills, each student talked about the specific career she is pursuing and why writing well is pertinent to that field.
All of a sudden, the students started speaking up. Each one wanted to speak about writing in relation to their field. Each one wanted to know how she could become a better writer. We discussed the elements of effective goal setting, and they set to work. They wrote out their goals for the semester, with many of them adding in how refining their writing skills is an overall goal for their professional lives.
The Real World
Instead of the ever-dreaded final research paper, I assigned a “research project.” The research project, of course, consisted of the research paper but was slightly modified:
- They no longer needed to write a research paper on one of the works of literature we would be reading throughout the semester, which is based on a topic of my choosing. Rather, they would choose any topic that they are interested in, within the field that they are studying.
- They would compose the research paper and would also be responsible for submitting a process video. The video would consist of their insights into the entire research process. It would highlight how they have made a meaningful contribution to the dialogue in their field.
Here we entered into PBL—project based learning—which is a sure way to empower the students with relevance and meaning. PBL allows students to make their own decisions for their education. Meanwhile, it also gives them real-world situations to question, research, solve, and engage with. PBL correlates with MBE Principle #19:
“THE BRAIN REMEMBERS BEST WHEN FACTS AND SKILLS ARE EMBEDDED IN CONTEXTS THAT ARE AUTHENTIC FOR THE LEARNER.”
This relates back to meaning and relevancy, giving the student more control over his learning environment. It no longer simulates the real world for him. School becomes the real world.
Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist who wrote a study (and eventually a New York Times bestselling book) about best educational practices. For one year, she followed teenage American exchange students around in their exchange countries, which included PISA top-scoring Finland, South Korea, and Poland. She decided to ask them about their educational experiences in their exchange countries as opposed to their home countries.
Kim, one of the exchange students, says: “The students here care more, they understand that [school] is important… They see the reaction, how what they do now will affect them [in the future]… Its more real to them.”
Tom is another exchange student who details that on the first day of school, students show up in black suits and ties. For Finnish, Polish, and South Korean students, school is not just a precursor to the real world. School is the real world. Here they practice resiliency, and they learn how to learn. Ripley concludes:
“Kids believe there is something in it for them. In these countries, what kids told me again, and again, and again is that kids believe that what they are doing in school affects what kind of car they are going to drive in the future, and how interesting their lives are going to be.”
An interesting, happy, motivated class usually starts with some key ingredients:
- addressing the meaning and relevance of the subject-matter to each individual student for now and the future
- helping them establish goals for the semester that coincide with their long-term aspirations
- situating their studies in the real world using PBL
- giving students choices and control in their learning
- asking for deep thinking and metacognitive reflection
However, none of these practices can replace the “skill as a [teacher]” that we alluded to in the beginning–the humor, the stories, and addressing of everyday problems. Relevance and PBL cannot replace good teaching strategies. Rather, these ingredients are a necessary component that allow students to be receptive to those good teaching strategies, and ultimately, the content we are aiming to teach.