The first thing blogging has taught me is to start with the meat. That said…
Start With the Meat. I actually only learned this after my previous post on The Mozart Effect and Learning Styles. I had a long waffle until I got to the bit I really wanted to say: that teaching to learning styles is always going to be valid and that the research that says it isn’t is defining learning too narrowly.
Readers prefer to get to the nitty-gritty upfront. I have a few seconds to impress you, dear reader – if not, you’re going to navigate away, aren’t you? (Please don’t!)
As a younger teacher, I always believed that my students needed to be led by the nose from the simple to the complex, both in terms of content, as well as in terms of the cognitive skills demanded of them. Now, I realize that it is better to flip the whole thing around. Students respond better if I begin with controversial statements, an issue for debate or a complex problem. Moreover, students want to know where they’ll end up before they set off – why not show them? The added bonus is that they pick up the more basic skills along the way – and it becomes more meaningful to them in context. If I can engage their attention quickly in the beginning, it makes the rest of the section I have to teach that much easier to get across.
Make Them LOL. I tried this more overtly with my posts on Private Schools, Bad Teachers and How Not to Be Stupid. But I also tried to inject a measure of humor (albeit more subtly) in my posts on Critical Thinking, 50 Things I Hate About South African Education and How to Avoid Plagiarism.
I think humor engages attention – but I have been careful not to overuse it. I’m glad I didn’t. (One or two readers messaged me and asked me if I were serious about my post titled Why Schools are Failing Boys.) Had I solely tried to be the clown, I have no doubt that these would have been taken less seriously than they have been.
The applications and benefits of using humor (carefully) in the classroom are obvious. The only thing I would emphasize is that it creates a comfortable atmosphere in class – which always facilitates engagement – and it has the side-effect of allowing you to ‘personalize’ the way you speak to your students. (Note: belittling is not humour. I allow myself a small pinch of this in my blog, but only against the narrow-minded – never in my class.)
Signpost Serendipity. Serendipitous learning comes from discovering interesting things by accident. Like when you look something up on Wikipedia and an hour later end up somewhere totally unexpected. Only very boring people only look up what they need in Wikipedia.
In my later posts, I have tried to encourage serendipity by inserting hyperlinks to interesting articles. You yourself may have come across this post in this way.
In class, serendipitous learning is under attack from stuffed syllabi. I have had to work hard to encourage tangential questions in class, as well as talking openly to my students about curiosity and life-long learning. I have also found that accidental learning can be nourished by personalizing assignments – that is, by giving students the choice to take their own angle on a research topic, or to include their own interests. I also have to work hard to customize the syllabus – allowing more time for discovery and discussion. A colleague of mine in the Science Department encourages students to Google everything she says… and then discusses the strange and fascinating things that crop up. The most intriguing instance of this was during a lesson on using variables in graphing – when the lesson ended up being about the 10 or so states of matter. I know about this because the Science students bounded into my lesson to tell me about it.
Next year, I want to leave more signposts to serendipity in my lessons and assessments. I want to encourage my students to find them – and to give them the time and opportunity to see where their chosen path leads. Not having enough time should never be an excuse standing in the way of learning.
Make it Stick. There are a variety of things one can do here to get the message across and make it memorable. Being controversial sometimes works, as do cute little list headings, post titles and section subtitles. But a crisp, clean layout, visual appeal, careful use of language and a neat conclusion do the job more effectively. I haven’t always managed to do this myself, but I do think I am getting better!
In my classroom, this means bringing things together neatly and cleanly at the end of a lesson. But it also means paying attention to the layout of handouts and assessments. I have to be careful to pitch my language at the appropriate level. There is nothing quite like a contentious question to open up a lesson. And, of course, student involvement helps more than anything in making a lesson sticky.
Break it into Chunks. Reading paragraph upon paragraph of information is boring. Speaking to my students, or letting them watch a video, or forcing them to read tomes of information is just as boring. I go by the 11/6 rule: That my students can only concentrate for 11 minutes at a stretch and that they can only learn 6 new things from me in one lesson. This is probably a slight corruption of the real numbers, but it works for me. I think of my classes like TV programs – 11 minutes of content followed by an advertising break.
(Re)Capture Interest. Roughly midway through a blog post, there should be something new or unexpected aimed at recapturing your audience’s attention. Attention spans tend to begin flagging at around about this point.
A teacher is always a performer. We are actors playing to an audience of kids. If we were on a proper stage, and people started walking out because they were bored, we would try to lift our game. Bloggers and teachers both have to learn to do this. Next year, I’m going to have a ‘Minute to Win It’ game in the middle of my lesson, just to shake things up and get their young brains re-engaged. (Click here for details of Minute To Win It Games.)
Use Lists. I like them and I’m sure you do too. Lists are handy both for blog posts and in teaching because:
- you get short, simple points to ponder.
- they allow you to prioritise or sequence information.
- they summarise key content.
- they are more pleasing to the eye and they attract attention.
- they allow the list-setter to organize their own thoughts concisely.
Connect, Connect, Connect! In my year or so of blogging, I have learned how important it is to connect with other bloggers and across social networks. I am by no means an accomplished blogger, but I have managed to grow my potential audience by including links to my posts on (amongst others) Pinterest, Scoop.it and Twitter. I have also learned that I need to make it easier for other people to connect with me on these different platforms if I want them to spend a little of their time reading my thoughts.
In teaching, it is important to connect with individual students appropriately, and perhaps take on less of a scatter-gun approach. To this end, I trialed Edmodo with my classes this year. I was able to send out messages, conduct feedback polls in order to gauge their learning, share resources, award badges and interact with my more introverted students through direct comments. Edmodo is the ideal safe and secure networking tool for use in connecting with students and parents. An added benefit is that I had to sit at the end of each day and ponder each individual in my class in order to decide which badges they deserved. (Some days, though, I would award them then and there using my iPad.) This kind of individualized reflection works wonders for student engagement.
Customize and Enhance User Experience. This is something I am still not fully competent at as a blogger. I know that I need to figure out a way to make every person who visits my blog feel that they are special. My thoughts here are that I can create a visitor map/scroll so that they can see themselves mentioned there. Perhaps I can expand my blog-roll somewhat too. I do have a comments section, but I need to figure out a few other ways to get my audience to feel that they are important to me. (Please take a moment to offer suggestions in this regard in the comments section at the end of this post. I would greatly value any advice!)
I am fortunate to work at a relatively well-off school in South Africa. Parents pay an enormous sum each year for us to educate their children. I take giving them value for their money very seriously. To this end, my priority is the individual. This is obviously difficult in some of my bigger classes, there are a few tricks around this problem. I never feel that I succeed to the degree I want to in customizing each and every lesson to the needs and context of my very unique students. The major reason I use my social networks is to find better ways of doing this, because I think this is the most important part of my job as a teacher. Too many of my students still disappear in the noise, and I would like to ensure that fewer of them do. (Again, suggestions both here and on Twitter would be most gratefully accepted.)
Make it different. I despise group-think. And, curiously, you get quite a lot of it from bloggers. It is unfortunate that given the freedom to talk about whatever you want to talk about, so many of us end up talking about the same things. This seems especially true in educational circles. In this blog, I will continue to try to provide insights that are unusual, opinions that are unconventional, and ideas that are controversial. Otherwise, why bother?
Towards my teaching mantra of providing an individualized education to my students in order to foster self-confidence and the ability to think innovatively, I feel it is crucial that I prod at conventional thinking. As a South African, I feel it is vital that I challenge inherited prejudices and bigotry. As a free-thinking teacher, I want to encourage critical thinking and innovative minds. I cannot do any of this without challenging the norm – and encouraging my students to follow suit.
I am not an uber-blogger. Ditto with my teaching. But I am learning all the time. I think this is the real value of blogging and of what it has taught me about teaching: I am always learning new things, and always trying to do what I do better. I recommend the experience to any teachers out there with similar aspirations. In the end, if I can make just a small change for the better, it would be worthwhile.