Let’s talk WITH our students – not AT them

How do we, as educators, compete with the increasing number of distractions around our students? How can we get students to learn when their attentions are split among several things or are elsewhere all together? The answers to these questions are simple: we can’t compete, and we can’t get students to learn when their heads are somewhere else. But, what we can do is learn to teach in a way that engages students, so that their minds don’t have time drift away. So, how do we do this?

In my opinion, to do this, we must move away from the dominant lecture-style teaching format. Cellphones, laptops, iPads, Apple watches, etc all provide students with constant access not only to their friends and family but to the entire world via the internet. There is no way that they can listen to our voices droning on and on while they read the latest tweets and status updates. Don’t get me wrong, lecturing has its place in the classroom and can be an important teaching tool. For example, Robert Talbert discusses how lectures can be used in a beneficial manner in “Four Things Lecture is Good For” (2012) by stating that lectures are bad for transferring information from teacher to student but are good for covering a lot of material. He also states that people who are good at lecturing incorporate big-picture views about the topic being lectured. That is – lectures should not just spew fact after fact about one topic – they need to explain why the facts are important and relate the topic being lectured to other topics.

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However, standing in front of a group of people talking AT them for an hour plus doesn’t accomplish what we want it to. Instead of talking AT our students we need to talk WITH them. We should not be the only voices being heard in the classroom. Our students should express their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions, and their experiences in class (when appropriate and asked for, of course). Everybody has a different set of knowledge and skills that make his/her/their voices have something unique to say. And just because we are educators, does not mean we should not be educated every day as well. Even if our students don’t know more about the topic being discussed than we do, they may ask a question that sparks an engaging conversation. Or they may have a comment that insights feelings in other students that prompt them to speak up. Even the statements of “I don’t understand” or “can someone explain this in a different way” are extremely valuable to us as teachers. This lets us know that we need to LEARN to express something in a different manner. As Marc Carnes states in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” (2011), students are dropping out of college not because they cannot afford it (though that does play some role) but because they are not interested! Why spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on “not learning” something you’re not interested in?

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We cannot (or should not) forbid technology in the classroom without major pushback (see “Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay Or a Third Way?” by Anna Kamenetz,2018). So, we need to get students to engage in their classes so that they are not bored and want to read that “Bob just got his hair cut and is feeling fresh” more than listen to us talk. Just as we are taught as children to earn the respect of others, as teachers we need to earn the attention (which can translate into respect) from our students. Making them feel talked at and unheard won’t accomplish this. I realize I am not providing any answers here on how to engage students, particularly while incorporating technology – that is up to us to discuss WITH our teachers and peers!

Higher Education Isn’t Child’s Play

When we are little, we learn every day. And it is fun! We learn to count, talk, tie our shoes, feed ourselves, etc … and each and every time we learn something new, it is the best thing that has ever happened! As baby George demonstrated, we even had fun when we failed ~ because failing is also learning, and learning is fun! As we age, learning becomes more tedious, likely because we are judged based how “well” we learn. When we are little, every time we fall or say the alphabet incorrectly, it is cute, we are encouraged to try again by smiling faces, and learning is an adventure (as Kuh states). But later, grades, report cards, and awards make children think of learning as a chore. Something that they have to do in order to succeed. Unfortunately, most of the times when students “fail” at something in a class, there isn’t a smiling face and the reassurance of another chance to try again.

Many argue that we learn everyday even as adults. But how often do adults think that learning is fun? For example, if someone says “Hey – Erin! Let’s do something fun today! What would you like to do?” Even as someone who likes school, my standard responses to this question include “go see a movie,” “go bowling” or “go out to a nice restaurant.” Although I do thoroughly enjoy learning, it often seems to me that I am, and presumably the rest of us in academia are, the minority because learning goes from:

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In my opinion, using social media and blogging is a way to make learning fun again. It allows people to express themselves in often a less formal manner than typical “academic” writing. This, at least for me, takes off a lot of the stress involved with writing. Additionally, posting writing online via Facebook, blogging, Twitter etc encourages people to write well – as nobody wants to appear “stupid” to the masses. Overall, I believe that using tools such as blogging is increasingly important in today’s working world. It is not just for the youngest generation either – people of all ages are blogging and using social media to communicate with others. It will be really interesting to see how online networking continues to grow over the next decade and how it may bring fun back into education!