“Since We’re Not Allowed to Electrify the Seats…Raising the Level of Concern for Engagement”
A few months into my teaching career, I came to a somewhat disheartening realization: at any given moment when I was speaking in class, fewer than 70% of my students were actively listening. Today, the wisdom and experience of 22 years in the classroom has taught me that my younger self was either optimistic or delusional; my 7 out of 10 approximation was way too generous.
In a seemingly never-ending quest to use class time efficiently and productively, I’ve consistently fallen back on the well-known, tried-and-true technique of “doing what Fr. Ober did.”
OK, it’s not actually just one technique, but here’s my best attempt at a one-line summary: Constantly raise the level of concern.
Raising students’ level of concern starts when they walk in the classroom. The longer class changes offer a great chance to amp up the energy level. Diving right in at the starting bell and keeping the action moving and varied throughout the period is my best shot at maintaining that initial buzz. Having an overarching goal (an AP exam, for example) or a common enemy (every other student in America) provides a nice touchstone to which I can refer to refocus attention. Likewise, highlighting the “extreme difficulty” and “traps” of certain concepts is attention-grabbing. Finally, plain old-fashioned enthusiasm and excitement about math/learning/being alive can go a long way toward elevating concern.
At the risk of sounding alarmist, I believe that if, at any given moment, a student isn’t actively doing something, then he isn’t learning and the level of concern has evaporated. I try to bounce between solo work and groups of different sizes, as well as between cooperation and competition. No matter the task, students earn points. Pace is key – I choose to err on the side of too fast. Over time (and to this day), I have recognized that some implementations of “students doing something” worked better in my brain than in practice; some “student activities” just ended up being disguises for me doing the work. Jettisoning the ineffective stuff can be humbling and even demoralizing, but time is too valuable and I need to be honest when analyzing the effectiveness of student tasks.
Of course, there are times when I must do the talking. Sadly, I’m not that interesting, and people in general are bad listeners (myself included). Furthermore, most students are woefully unskilled note takers. To address these obstacles, I create personalized notes templates that offer not just a task/goal for students to accomplish when I need to “lecture” but also a natural way to tie new material to old and to build in practice and collaboration opportunities to break up said lectures. I lecture Socratically and use a random-name-caller app that elevates concern in the classroom; notes templates scaffold and facilitate the note-taking process and (hopefully) allow students to keep thinking and responding while writing. Of all the ideas and techniques I’ve tried over the years, nothing has facilitated learning, helped both my students and me maintain focus, and streamlined my classes more than the use of notes templates. They turned a level-of-concern-killing activity into a weapon.