4 ways to engage learners without losing your mind

StudentsThere’s no doubt about it. Schools, universities and adult education training classrooms of today look very different than they did half a century ago.

Heck, they look different than they did 20 years ago. Twenty-first century learning is all about “engaging” the learner. What does that mean, exactly? There is not a single, concrete definition (at least as far as I have found). Here are a few common characteristics:

  • The teacher’s authoritative role is downplayed. Teachers are expected to be guides and collaborators, rather than the “ultimate authority” on a subject.
  • The “lecture” style of teaching is considered ineffective. Instead, group work and models that involve learners interacting with each other are preferred.
  • Students are encouraged to share their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate information. In an ideal situation, students also learn to back up their arguments with data and research.
  • Students discover meaning for themselves (often through a process guided by the teacher).
  • The one-way transmission of the teacher imparting knowledge and the students madly writing down everything the teacher says in order to absorb it all, is considered outdated and ineffective.

Let me be honest about my bias and say that I believe whole heartedly in engaging learners in this way. However, this way of teaching requires a substantial “re-wiring” of an instructor’s brain. If you were raised during a time or in a place where teachers could — and did — use the strap or a ruler to discipline students who misbehaved, you know what I am talking about. When I went to school, the strap had been outlawed, but rulers were still used.

Certain nuns in my school were particularly fond of whacking a ruler on a desk to grab the attention of a student who was daydreaming. Instantly, 25 students felt fear rush through them. I may be dating myself a bit here, but really, I am not as old as that statement might lead you to believe I am. My point is that education has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades.

The problem for many people like me is that we find it hard to reconcile 21st century ways of teaching and learning with the model that we know. Not only do we know it, it is all we knew growing up. Teaching in a way that supposedly “engages learners” seems “airy fairy” or “a waste of valuable classroom time” to some people. Some of those same people are very well educated. They have taken years to develop their expertise and they know their stuff darned well.

The problem is that no one really cares what teachers know any more. The whole concept of “teacher” has changed. Now, the person leading a class guides their students along a learning journey that neither begins, nor ends in their classroom. The model is unsettling and uncomfortable for educational professionals who feel that their worth and value as teachers is undermined unless they are imparting and actively transmitting their knowledge they carry within them.

So, what is the solution? Here are some easy ways to begin to transform your teaching practice, while still being true to who you are:

1. Start in the hallway. This may seem counterintuitive, but if the classroom is your sacred space where you teach and students learn, then acknowledge that bias and begin your exploration of new ways in a more neutral setting. Instead of rushing from your classroom to the teacher’s lounge or your office right away after a class, linger in the hallway. Ask students what they thought of the class today. Ask them how they might apply what they learned in the real world. Engaging students in these kinds of conversations gives you insights into your students’ abilities to engage in reflective thinking. It will also give you an idea of how they are making sense of what they learn.

2. Temporarily relinquish control of the chalkboard. Traditionally, the chalk board or white board is where the teacher writes down the information they want students’ to copy into their notebooks. It is part of the teacher’s “sacred space”. Traditionally, a teacher’s desk is located in front of the chalk board and there is an invisible field of authority around this space that includes the chalkboard or white board. Try this review activity in the last 20 minutes of class. Ask students to form teams of 4 or 5 students. Give the teams 2 minutes to write down the 10 most important aspects of the lesson. Draw vertical lines down your board so that the number of columns equals the number of teams (5 teams = 5 columns). Give each team a piece of chalk or a white board marker. Have them simultaneously go to the board and write down their 10 points. Then, have them find the common denominators among their lists. Talk about why those points rose to the top as being the most important. Then, review the points the teams did not agree on. Do all this while students are gathered at the front of the classroom in front of the board. At no point in this activity does the teacher write on the board. Let the students do the writing and circling of common denominators.

3. Include a group “discovery” or “creativity” project or activity. The project should not include going through a rote set of exercises and coming up with standardized answers. Instead, choose an activity that forces students to think “out of the box” and use their resourcefulness to create something new, using what they have learned. For example, in a foreign language class, group work might traditionally be done read through a dialogue. Each student would read the part of a different character. Together, students figure out the meaning of the conversation and answer standard questions. Instead of that traditional activity, an alternative would be to give students a list of key words or phrases in the chapter they are studying and have them create sentences using their new words. Groups trade copies of their work with each other and correct one another’s sentences. The teacher used to traditional classroom instruction needs to be aware that this type of activity will take much longer than a traditional group activity. A brief verbal survey after the activity is over will let you know which type of activity the students prefer more. Encourage them to articulate why they prefer one over the other.

4. Incorporate metacognitive activities. One aspect of creating “engaged” learning is challenging students to become more self-aware about their own learning process and increase their levels of personal responsibility. In order for this to happen, learners must become aware of the processes involved in acquiring new knowledge. Then, they can determine which methods are most effective for them. An example of how to do this in a language classroom would be to give pairs or small groups of students an assignment asking them to determine what is the most effective method to learn new verb conjugations. This activity begins with the assumption that there is more than one method. Students then embark on a journey of discovery to determine what those methods are. Part of the assignment might include testing a variety of different methods to determine which they feel works best. Then, they must use analytical thinking and research skills to determine which method is most effective. This not only helps them learn their verbs while focussing on the effectiveness of their method, it also increases their awareness of themselves as learners.

Evangelists of 21st century learning will tell you that traditional ways of teaching are bad and that your methods are arcane and do nothing to help students learn.

There may be some truth in that, but if you have been raised and trained to think and teach a certain way, becoming a 21st century teacher is not something that happens overnight. If you are interested in learning what will keep your students engaged, incorporating small, incremental changes to your teaching practice might be the most effective way to go. You don’t have to throw away everything that has worked for you over the past ten, fifteen or more years. Take stock of what you do very well and take pride in it. Incorporate new strategies slowly, in a way that makes sense for you. Observe how your students react and most importantly, if they are learning and absorbing new material in an effective manner.

Personally, I believe that most teaching methods have some merit. Certain methods work better with certain students. There is no absolute right way. Having said that, the teaching profession has changed… and continues to change. Our students and our world have changed. If we are to be not just teachers, but also role models, it is up to us to challenge ourselves to try new ways of doing things, too.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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