Guest blogger Tim Holt is a 25-year public school educator and has been both a science teacher and urban district administrator. Through it all, he has been an experimenter with technology, seeking ways to make learning more engaging and meaningful. He lives in Canutillo TX with his family and blogs at Intended Consequences.

 

By Tim Holt

One thing I really enjoy about my Professional Learning Network (PLN) is that there are a lot of people asking a lot of questions about education.

Some of the questions are stimulating such as Kevin Honeycutt’s plea for forward thinking when he asks: “Are we teaching for our students’ future or their teachers’ past?” Some are thought provoking, like Prakash Nair’s “If we are teaching for the 21st Century students, why are we building schools that look like they were designed in the 1940’s?” Some point me towards articles and blogs I should be reading — “Have you read so and so’s take on 21st Century Skills?” — or websites I should be using: “Have you seen www.automatoon.com?” And some are asking very general questions to the masses, hoping for direction: “Does anyone know why I should use Facebook in my classroom?”

The questions I like best are the ones that really make me think. Usually, if I read a question that makes me ponder for more than a few minutes, I’ll write a blog in the hopes that I can answer it satisfactorily in my mind (and at the same time share the question with all seven of my blog readers). One such question I’ve been thinking about for a year now is one I read on my  Plurk PLN some time ago. I wish I could remember who wrote it. The question was straightforward:

In a typical school day, what 30 minutes will your students remember the most?

That’s it. A very simple question. We have students for what essentially amounts to 7 1/2 hours a day. (I will assume a basic 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM day for our purposes here.)

That is 60 minutes times 7.5 or 450 minutes a day that students are with us.

Of those 450 minutes, what 30 minutes are most memorable?

Can students actually point to some place in the day that they recall learning something? Is there a event in the day that peaked their attention? Something that made their neurons fire up and their brains engage? Think back. What 30 minutes of an entire day did you turn on to as a student? What woke you up from your teenage hormone induced stupor? When did we as educators capture your attention? When were we doing our job?

I asked my son that exact question. What 30 minutes stands out most in your day? His response was “Lunch, because I got to be with my friends.”

Sadly, my son’s response is not atypical. Any parent who has a child in secondary school has become accustomed to the response of “nothing” or “stuff” when asking the question, “What did you learn in school today?”

“Really?”, I will quiz him. “You sat there for seven and a half hours and didn’t learn a thing?”  That question is usually met with mumbling, followed by a question about what’s for dinner.  Nothing memorable enough to tell the old man about.

 

What can teen passions tell us about engagement?

Now my son is by no means a genius, but he is pretty typical I think of an American high school student. He strives to be firmly in the middle, and is happily settled into mediocrity. He’s more interested in his looks than his grades. However, he is an honest kid, and if something was memorable to him, I believe that he would really tell me. He can remember and gladly relays to me food fights in the cafeteria, fire drills, pep rallies and early dismissals. He can tell me if a teacher embarrassed himself, cussed in class, or did something out of the “norm” of the day. But he can’t remember 30 minutes where he was engaged and excited about learning.

I suspect that if we were to hold 1000 students’ feet to the fire and really make them tell us what thirty minutes of the day actually stood out to them, the vast majority would highlight something that is non-academic: lunch, after school, sports practice, etc. Some of us will probably say, “Well, that is the nature of the beast — students will always remember the social over the academic, especially the high schoolers.”

Why is that the case? I think a lot of it has to do with the passions of the students. In the teen years, the vast majority of these passions are social in nature (major sports, drama, cheerleading, band, clubs, orchestra, etc.). Many states even acknowledge this with various “No Pass No Play” laws that restrict students from participating in extracurricular activities unless they are passing academics.

When a student cannot recall a single 30-minute span of class time that really stood out, that tells me that they are simply not engaged, for whatever reason. It always amazes me when teachers say this or that child is “lazy” (the catch all phrase for any student who’s not paying attention). Yet the same student who is “not motivated” will bust his butt after school for a football coach or the marching band teacher. Since we are aware that teenage students are social animals, perhaps the question needs to be reworked into the idea that our lessons and our curriculum need to be more social in nature.

 

How do we make teen learning more social?

The blogosphere is full of stories about  educators trying to figure out how to incorporate Facebook or Twitter into lessons. I think that this approach, while well intentioned, may be somewhat misguided. Many of these efforts are trying to shoehorn a tool into a previously constructed lesson and hoping that the shoe kind of fits. What really needs to happen is that the lessons by nature need to be social and the tools are selected because they naturally  complement the learning.

Problem-based learning (PBL) and it’s close cousin Challenge-Based (CBL) learning are methodologies that emphasize collaboration, encourage socialization, and also address student passions by eliciting emotional responses to the learning. But they are not widely adopted methodologies. In fact, PBL and CBL are rare exceptions to “sit and get” learning in most school districts.

Bill Stepien, a longtime guru and advocate of Problem Based Learning, once told an audience that without an emotional response of some kind, no learning takes place. He used the example of your first kiss, asking an audience of middle-aged educators whether or not they remembered their first kiss. Most did, even though it may have taken place decades earlier. He then asked them to remember the kiss they had 17 kisses ago. Most laughed because they could not make that particular memory awaken in their minds. It wasn’t that the kiss 17 kisses ago was without meaning, it was just that there was a much deeper emotional attachment to the first kiss.

Teens are most likely to have emotional responses to learning — and remember what they’ve learned long after the experience — in a social context. They are emotionally detached from the sit-and-get teaching style that pervades much of our secondary educational system.

So how do we make that leap from non-social learning to social learning?  Sometimes, the simplest ways are the most effective. I once visited a science class where, over in the corner, a small ready-for-the-surplus-sale laptop was running only one program: Skype. The teacher had worked out a deal with a content-area colleague in the same school system that whenever their students were working on labs, they would have Skype on in both classrooms. The idea was to let students ask each other questions, compare data, and see if the results they were getting matched up. There was no crowding around the computer — it was just another tool, a social tool, that the students used to collaborate with one another even though their classes were in separate schools across the district.

That small social aspect of the class made the learning much more meaningful to the students. It gave them insight to other students’ thinking, created a social bond, and really encouraged deeper learning. I suspect that students remember that little workstation to this day, because of the emotional attachment it created. It made lab time memorable.

So we need to show teachers and administrators how to shift instruction in ways that makes classroom learning more social and less isolated. Once that is done, the rest is less difficult. Because the kids are already in the social sphere of learning outside of school, we are meeting them on their playground.

Often, ed-tech advocates bemoan the fact that students are asked to “power down” when they come to school, meaning that they have to leave their digital gadgets behind. But we also tell them to power down their social lives. That’s what happens when we make them turn off their gadgets. They lose contact with their social world. If we can provide the means to re-establish that social contact, in a learning context, we’ve got their attention right where we want it.

Showing teachers how to properly incorporate social media into classroom lessons is the first step. It does not have to be complicated, as the Skype station example demonstrates. Building lessons based on problem solving, encouraging collaboration, tapping into their innate passion for social contact can not only ignite student’s neurons but form that emotional attachment Bill Stepien spoke about.

The next step is to stand back and let the students, with guidance, begin to develop their own social learning experiences. When this happens, maybe our kids will be able to recall at least a great 30-minute learning experience each day of school  — and not just 30 minutes socializing over lunch.

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Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice. She works with schools and districts from around the world helping them to infuse technology into their curriculums and by leading other digital conversion efforts. Sheryl also consults with governments, educational organizations and non-profits in development of their various professional learning initiatives. Sheryl is a sought-after presenter at national and international events, speaking on topics related to digital and online learning, teacher and educational leadership, online community building, and other educational issues impacting children of poverty. Sheryl served on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Board of Directors for six years. She co-authored The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age with Lani Ritter Hall. Sheryl has four children and four grandsons, Luke, Logan, Levi and Tanner and a trio of dachshunds. You can find out more on her blog and on Twitter @snbeach.
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