What DOES work. . .

In a comment on one of my recent posts about Interactive Whiteboards, Jake asked:

I have heard you talk about about your feelings on IWB’s for quite some time, and I must admit you make quite the compelling argument. And, to be quite honest, I agree with you for the most part.

However, what I haven’t heard is what are some strategies that DO work. Every professional conference (with the noted exception of the DuFour Conference) talks incessantly about what DOESN’T work but I just haven’t heard a lot about what does.

I have heard the occasional strategy that is sort of effective but what I experience more than anything when I try and get my kids to interact (in class) with material is they spend the majority of time gossiping.

To sum it up, I would just like to hear about some strategies that you (or anyone else that reads this) does that is not the Sage on the Stage model. Am I making sense?

Interesting question, Jake, and one without a simple answer because every group of students is unique!  What might “work” with this year’s class could completely flop next year.  Even worse, what might “work” with my upper middle class suburban students could be irrelevant to kids in rural or urban schools.

What make my answer even more interesting is that if I were to talk about “what works” with kids, I’d never start the conversation with reflections on digital tools.

Instead, my list of what works looks a bit like this:

Activities that focus on justice and injustice:  Regardless of the generation, kids have always been driven by issues connected to fairness, haven’t they?  Why else would they cry when they get cut lining up to go to the lunchroom?

This sense of fairness and justice can be leveraged into meaningful learning experiences in almost every content area and grade level.

Teaching math?  Then have your kids start charting and graphing the life expectancies of people living on different continents.  When they see the inevitable disparities between the developed and developing world, you’ll have ‘em hooked.

Teaching science?  Start looking at the world’s use of energy resources and the consequences that an unfair distribution of energy resources is having on our planet.  Questions like, “Is it fair that the US is producing a heaping cheese ton of the world’s pollution while developing nations suffer with droughts?” can become starting points for motivated kids.

Themes of justice and injustice are easy to pull of in Language Arts and Social Studies.  Need an example?  Just take a look at how European communities are treating Muslim immigrants.

Any of this making sense?

Essentially, I’m saying that our mistake as teachers often starts with the content that we use to teach the skills our kids are required to learn.  If we choose to teach skills through content that is centered around the themes of justice and injustice—flexibility that is generally found in most curricula—we’ll have more motivated kids whether we’ve got Interactive Whiteboards or not.

Activities that engage kids in meaningful causes or give kids the chance to demonstrate their expertise:  One of the biggest differences between today’s kids and kids of earlier generations is that today’s kids are surrounded by opportunities to interact with meaningful causes and content from a much earlier age.  What’s more, they’ve got the opportunity to develop expertise—and to gain the recognition that comes from expertise—early and often.

The barriers to expertise and to involvement in meaningful issues that limited people for generations—age, access to opportunities, access to likeminded peers—were washed away the minute that World Wide Web thingy became widely accessible to everyone.

The result:  We’re working with an empowered generation that wants to feel like they’re doing something that matters—and to be treated as knowledgeable contributors with something worth sharing.

Now ask yourself:  How many times do you give your students the chance to feel like they’re making a difference?  How many times do you give your students the chance to demonstrate their expertise and to share what they know?

If you’re classroom is like most American classrooms, the answer’s probably, “Almost never.”

And that’s sad considering how easy it is to build learning experiences around opportunities to make a difference in the world.  The most successful project that I’ve currently got going is a Kiva lending team that has raised over $2,000 and made over 80 loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world.

My kids are super motivated to learn more about life in South America simply because we’re learning about life through the lens of the people that we’re lending to.  They’re practicing persuasive skills every day because they’ve got to make a case for the entrepreneur that they most want to support.  They’re studying default rates, delinquency rates and interest rates every day because they’re lending real money to real people.

Connecting traditional lessons to issues that matter has always been a strategy that works, right?  It’s just ten times more important for kids today because they’re more aware of issues and expertise than we ever were.

Activities that allow for social interaction:  If you haven’t figured it out, I’m a guy who likes to talk!  What’s funny is my attraction to talking has nothing to do with by “social-butterfly-ness.”  In reality, I’m a pretty private guy who doesn’t enjoy small talk.

Instead, I love talking because it gives me the chance to articulate my thoughts—and the process of articulation forces me to consider my own positions carefully.  Better yet, I love when my thinking is challenged because I know that I’m going to have to refine and revise what I once held as true.

As my good friend Cassie Erkens always says, “The one who is doing the talking is the one who is doing the learning.”

Now, is it possible that students can drift towards the kinds of gossip and wasted time that Jake describes in his question when they’re given the chance to interact with one another in class?

Sure.  But my argument would be that if your kids are off task while they’re interacting with one another, it’s because you haven’t created a motivating task to begin with!

When I’ve created learning experiences built from justice and injustice OR when I’ve created learning experiences that involve kids in meaningful issues OR when I’ve created learning experiences that give kids a chance to be seen as experts, they’re never off task.


Now is it easy to create these kinds of learning experiences day in and day out for 180 days? 

Heck no.  In fact, I’d say that about 30% of the lessons that I create each year meet these criteria.

Sad, isn’t it?  I mean, it’s not like I don’t want to engage my kids.  It’s just that designing such meaningful experiences takes time and effort that I just don’t have.  Between regular meetings, grading papers, answering email, working part time jobs and raising a daughter, there’s not a ton of wiggle room on my “To Do” list.

(And remember, I’m working in a country that still believes teachers are only “working” when they’re in front of kids—explaining the 6 professional workdays I get each year and the meager 90 minutes of planning I have each day to do everything necessary to prepare lessons for my kids.)

But I’m aware of the components of motivating activities and each year, I experiment with new experiences that might hook my kids.  When I find something that “works,” I try to replicate the practice across disciplines and units of study.

And only then do I go looking for technology to enhance the process.  Adding technology to lessons that ignore the characteristics of the kinds of learning experiences that our kids value is nothing more than wasting cash.

And sadly, wasting cash seems to be the norm in most schools and districts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that good technology choices must ALWAYS start with a good vision for what exactly “works” with your students.

Does any of this make sense?