Don’t lecture. Use technology. Technology is distracting. Lecture sometimes. Give students freedom. Be accountable for educational achievement.
The thing about education is that everyone has an opinion on how it should be done, which sometimes leaves those of us in the trenches feeling as if we are wandering the countryside divining for water — we know it’s worked when it has. But just because we know when a project or activity has worked doesn’t mean it will next semester.
One semester I had students imagine they were artistic directors for a theater. They had to present a group of plays to their theater’s board of directors, which means they had to talk about the plays, interpret them, share their inherent value, and explain how they could be staged meaningfully for modern audiences, etc. The first semester I did the projects students were completely involved, adding advertising materials, sketching out stage designs and responding critically to their peers. It was magic. The next semester the students went through the paces and fulfilled the projects, but I hadn’t captured their imagination.
We’ve all been there. We feel responsible, but there are aspects of the class dynamic (interpersonal relationships, exhaustion, hunger, time of day, yadda yadda) that are beyond our control.
Mark Carnes makes a great case for a type of curriculum called Reacting To The Past in his article “Setting Students Minds on Fire.” Students who participate in Reacting To The Past-style seminars assume the identity of characters from history and must understand their lives and the historical context to understand the characters’ motivations as they immerse themselves in the past. It sounds amazing. But does it work every single time? Is there always that magical moment of kismet as students become so involved in the course that they stay up late discussing the lives and times of their characters? In other words, does it always find water?
I imagine not.
Moving forward, I think the best thing educators can do is admit that there can’t ever be one prescription to cure the ails of classroom drudgery. Instead of feeling disempowered as diviners, we need to trust our own instincts and skill. In our search or thirst-quenching moments of fully-involved students, we have to be willing to change course during the semester. If students are responding strongly to one theme or text, we should stay with that topic ‑ ditch the class schedule/calendar or find a way to cover the next prescribed topic by expanding discussion/projects/involvement with what students are enjoying.
In “A New Culture of Learning,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe giving students freedom within bounds — play with rules — as a way to grow student passion. I’d suggest that we need to enter a classroom without knowing what all those rules are. We need to be freed enough ourselves to set boundaries as they need to be set and do away with others when they begin to constrict. Each semester is a new game and the rules should never be exactly the same. Educators should feel the confidence they need to feel the subtle movements of the diving rod and adjust accordingly using an assortment of tools (including technology and lectures) in the never-ending search for water.