So, You Want To Engage Your Learners More Effectively?

Do you want to know why some learners are really disengaged from lessons?  If you want to get an idea across to your learners then you have to give them some sort of emotional stake in their learning.  Advertising executives and politicians have known this for years.  Cars are not sold on their mpg figures and the capacity of their boot.  They are sold by appealing to the buyer’s emotions.  For years Audi has sold its cars with the slogan, “Vorsprung durch Technik.”  The fact that few people know what it means does not matter.  People just assume that it has something to do with quality German engineering and therefore it must be good.  All the talk in the political arena about immigration has little to do with the facts; politicians are blatantly appealing to voters’ emotions.

So, what has this got to do with the classroom?  If you want to engage your learners then you really should try to engage their emotions.  Imagine a lesson about nuclear power.  Imagine that the teacher has put the objective on the board: to understand the advantages and and disadvantages of nuclear power.  I bet that more than 50% of the class would turn off as soon as they read that.  Now imagine the next door classroom where the teachers has put up a headline: “Permission to Build Nuclear Station in [insert name of the next town] Granted,” along with a photo of a nuclear power station.  I bet there would be a buzz in the room straight away.  Suddenly, the learners have a stake in the lesson.  The lesson could be constructed to look at the advantages and disadvantages and next lesson there could be a full blown debate about the issue.  I am certain that, in their research, learners would unearth most of the hard facts required in this science lesson.

Recently a colleague started a Year 10 lesson by telling the class that Facebook would be enforcing a strict minimum age limit of 16, and that all the accounts of those under this age would be wiped.  As you can imagine, the learners were engaged from that first moment.  The only problem was containing and channeling the students’ reaction effectively.  I am sure that the lesson was far more memorable than, objective: the advantages and disadvantages of social networks.

A few days ago I taught a lesson about copyright.  I put up on the board a series of scenarios for the students to consider.  Is it alright to copy homework?  Is is alright to copy a cd to listen to in the car,  or to give it to a friend, or to sell it?  What about downloading music?  Or using a photo you have found on the internet on your Facebook page?  All the questions were designed to be issues that the learners deal with themselves.  I put the questions up and let them talk.  I did not intervene, I just let the discussion develop and it was very interesting hearing the different points of view that the learners expressed.  Eventually we came round to the idea of copyright and why it exists.  Again, the learners’ reaction and engagement was far better that if I had started with, objective: understanding copyright.

If you really want to engage your learners in their learning, you must engage their emotions.  You must provoke a reaction so that they really think about what you are presenting them with.  this is especially important if what you are teaching is very factual.  It is a bit like poking a stick into a wasps’ nest; you get a reaction, you get emotional involvement, and you get engagement.

So, You Want To Engage Your Learners More Effectively?

Playground Culture

I was amazed to hear my son utter the immortal words, “Quis…ego,” when he came home from his school, which is a ‘bog standard comprehensive’.  When I was a schoolboy – in the depths of the last century – at a traditional English school where we studied Latin, there were often cries of “Quis” closely followed by “Ego”.  Us boys were so lacking in gumption that it took our Latin teacher to explain to us why we used these terms.  Quis is Latin for ‘who?’  Quis was called when someone had something that they did not want any longer.  It may have been some food, a marble, a conker or other small item.  So, quis was code for ‘who wants it?’  Ego means ‘I’.  So the call of ‘Ego’ simply showed that the caller wanted the item.  The first person to call ego received it, which meant that at times there was a veritable chorus of boys shouting ‘Ego!’ You has to watch out as sometimes the item was something that you really didn’t want, rubbish, for example.

As soon as I heard the phrase I quizzed by son about it and how it is used in the playground.  He confirmed that it is used in exactly the same way as it was in my school which is over 300 miles and over 30 years away.  I asked him if he knew where the words came from and he had no idea – much as I hadn’t all those years before.  My son had more of an excuse though; Latin is not taught in his school and hasn’t been for decades.

I have to say that I was secretly pleased that this tradition from my own school days is being continued but I would love to know how it has survived.  I would like to think that it has been used in the playground all that time and it has been passed on from generation to generation without a break.  There is another possibility.  Perhaps it has been reintroduced into the school by a pupil from another school who has brought the tradition with him.  I think I may well have to do a little detective work on this one.

How ever this piece of playground lore has survived, it is interesting that it has.  It has also outlived the school subject that brought it into being by some margin.  This devise clearly has an ongoing currency in schoolboy culture or it certainly would have fallen out of use.  It would be interesting to know if my son’s children will use ‘quis…ego’ in their playgrounds in years to come; I know my father would have certainly have recognised it.

Playground Culture

In a Position to Learn?

Some of you will know that besides teaching, I coach rugby. I was coaching scrummaging recently to two groups. One group consisted of fairly experienced scrummagers who had played regularly for both the school team and their rugby club for a number of years. The other group were complete scrummaging novices.  I went through the absolute basics with both groups, mainly concerning achieving the correct body positions. It was interesting that at the end of the session, all the novices had better technique than all the experienced players.  It was clear that the experienced players had got away with poor technique and had been fairly successful with it and they were not very receptive to having their technique questioned and making an effort to improve it.
For me, there are several lessons for the classroom here. First, people who have no preconceptions can often progress fastest as there is nothing to unlearn, providing that the learner wants to learn the new skill. The learner’s mind must be opened up to learning and then rapid progress is possible. This emphasises the importance of high quality first teaching. If the skill is taught rigorously and robustly then a new skill can be established quickly.  On the other hand, if the skill is taught poorly and a less than optimal technique is taught, then the learner can be at a permanent disadvantage.
Second, if the basics are not practised then the skill will deteriorate and bringing the skill back up to scratch can be difficult.  The learner may well think that they can perform the skill sufficiently well, let’s face it, their experience tells them that they are right.  This shows that basics must not be taken for granted and that they need emphasising and making explicit especially when more advanced skills are being worked on. It is important that previous work is revisited and key points brought out before more advanced ideas are introduced.  This can lead to people moaning that they’ve done this before.  The trick is to dress up old ideas in new clothes so that learners don’t necessarily recognise that they are doing the same thing again.  Changing context can work well here.  We have already seen that a skill can be established quickly with high quality first teaching, but it can only become embedded if it is revisited.
Third, people who think that they know what they are doing can be reluctant learners. Perhaps these people believe that they are expert because there experience tells then that they are doing well.  They are often unaware that another level of learning exists and, because they do not believe that another level exists they are unable to access it. These people simply rehearse their own tried and tested method without really engaging with a more expert mode. Perhaps they need to be put in a situation where their method no longer works and they are forced to confront the shortcomings in their method.  The challenge is to get these people to realise that their own method can be improved upon and that a more refined method may be more efficient and require less effort on their part.
Finally, I really do believe that teachers who get out of the classroom and do other things become better teachers.  I often find it interesting when inspiration strikes.  So, get outside the classroom and keep your eyes and ears open, you never know when you might get a deeper insight into your teaching.
In a Position to Learn?