The Rules Of Engagement in Today’s Classroom

With a title like the one above, one would think this writer must be an expert on the subject of engaging young minds. I must admit from the outset that this is definitely not the case. Far from it, to be exact. Having been a teacher for over a decade, I have had more than my fair share of pointless lessons, where bored faces and quizzical looks ruled the day, when learning just didn’t take place and you wished you had chosen an altogether different path in life. While I can’t say those days are long gone, it is true that I have learnt a lot since then from those around me – wiser colleagues, students old and new and more recently, my own children. The numerous research articles written on the subject have also helped many a teacher struggling to cope with the demands of a new era in education. In the subsequent paragraphs, allow me to share with you my two-cents worth on a few basic ways to keep students engaged in class. They have helped me at least continue to believe that I can make a difference.

For starters, I have to talk about technology. I must confess that as I sit and prepare to write this article, I am using a pen and notebook (of the non-digital kind) to jot down my thoughts. Before you cry foul and dismiss me as a philistine, don’t bother. My elder son has already done that: “Why are you writing down so much, Mummy? If you use your laptop, you can write faster and your fingers won’t hurt.”  I’m surprised he didn’t continue with “……and you can watch the latest Lady Gaga video on YouTube while you’re at it.” Thanks for the advice son, but really, I feel much more comfortable writing down my points on paper. I can’t explain why, I just do.  At least, I type out my work on a laptop, right? 

See, the thing is, for young people today, doing one thing at a time, slowly, step-by-step, makes no sense at all. For them, it is all about speed, multi-tasking and getting instantaneous results. And this influences how they learn. What this means for teachers is, not only is using technology an imperative, they have to use it regularly and in a variety of ways. In short, bring on the IT.

Take my son, as an example. As a rule, he hates going to school. The lessons are boring and difficult, the classrooms too hot and the teachers too strict. One exception is on days when technology plays a big role. Like the day the teacher showed them videos of “Annoying Orange” to teach…er…..something (apparently there was a lesson in there somewhere).  He came home beaming from ear to ear, regaling us with talk about that really irritating fruit. Obviously, he’d had a good day in school.  Or the other time when they used iPods on a school trip to teach Maths concepts. Till this day, the memory of that trip remains etched in his mind.  His younger brother, usually reticent about the day’s events in school (“ I just learnt hard things, had lunch and came home”) will become Mr Chatterbox as he recounts how his teacher told them a story and showed them pictures using her computer. If this isn’t engagement, I don’t know what is.

In my own experience with older teens, I realise that there is an almost immediate mass perking- up that happens in the classroom as soon as I use technology to teach something. It could go from the mundane (like a regular PowerPoint presentation that isn’t too wordy, of course) to something fancier (like online discussion forums or video clips). Suddenly, everyone is awake and interested.  iPhones, normally clung onto for dear life, are momentarily abandoned. There are fewer trips to the loo and less stifling of yawns. Who’d have known that these were the very same people who, a few minutes before, were practically comatose when I walked into class after a long Physics lesson.

That’s not all. Kids also seem to learn better when they can see the relevance of what they are learning. As such, teachers should try to bring issues or topics closer to home if they can. Add the use of IT into the mix and you can’t go wrong. For instance, while covering the issue of Poverty, discussions in class dwell largely on poverty in the 3rd World. It is perhaps unreasonable to expect a group of affluent Singaporean youngsters to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. After all, surely there are more important things to worry about like how to get the iPhone 5 before your friends or snag the latest Louis Vuitton handbag some celebrity was carrying?  So, in a bid to get them interested, I got my students to embark on an IT project on Poverty in Singapore. They were to explore the Singapore context and make use of IT to present their findings. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience for them as they learnt about the disadvantaged in their own society. Once there is empathy, there is bound to be engagement. If technology can broaden horizons and raise awareness of important issues, I say let’s have more of it.

Still, any teacher worth her salt knows that using technology is not the only way to excite students. Group work in class seems to be another foolproof activity that works well for students of all ages. There is nothing earth-shattering about this. We all know that there is something about being part of a team that makes people want to participate and do their best. Well, most people anyway. For others, it might just be a time to let your hair down and hang loose, since the teacher isn’t actively teaching. Funnily enough, my son doesn’t seem too keen on group work. He is often full of complaints about the boys in his group.  Honestly, I don’t blame the poor fellow. He is a group leader but try as he might, he just can’t seem to manage the other members of his group.  So-and-so won’t stop talking, another one hogs the pen inspite of his horrible handwriting, a third keeps playing with his eraser….and it goes on. And there are 8 members in his group! Surely it is too much to expect primary school kids to lead or be part of a group unless you actually spell out the rules of collaboration beforehand? Not everyone is a born team player.  And how could having more than 4 in the group lead to any sort of coherent, sensible discussion? It seems to me that teachers need to be more actively involved when group work is going on, however old their students are. They have to be part of every group’s discussion and deal with situations that are potentially disruptive. They must take their role of being the facilitator seriously. If not, chaos will inevitably ensue.

But really, even before all that happens, teachers need to first teach kids how to work together in a team. You can’t throw a bunch of rowdy 9-year olds in the deep end and expect them not to drown each other. If they are taught how to listen to each other’s views and build consensus, group work can be meaningful. These skills will, no doubt, stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

Besides this, having good rapport with your students is crucial if you want their cooperation and attention in class. This is especially so when you are teaching something that is particularly difficult or boring. However, getting along well with students doesn’t mean allowing them to sit on your head and ask you personal questions.   As a new teacher, there were times when I was the target of many an embarrassing question or comment about my private affairs (“You got boyfriend or not, Cher?” and “That colour doesn’t suit you, lah. So boring!). And all this during lesson time! I have learnt over the years to deflect this unwanted attention. A quick change of subject usually works.

Nonetheless, it is important that you try to like your students and get them to like you back. Aside from the occasional bad hat, you will probably find most of your students quite endearing. Yes, even the angsty adolescents!  Having mutual respect and admiration usually works wonders in today’s context. Many of us have found that giving anecdotes (related to the lesson at hand, of course) helps to not only drive a point across while you are teaching, it also helps the students relate to you. This might be stories from your own life or those of people you know. As an example, in discussing the issue of foreign talent or immigration, I might relate stories of my own relatives, both living and dead, and their movement around different parts of the world for different reasons. This type of thing almost certainly guarantees you a captive audience. It is nice when the students realise you are human after all.

Well, so much for my take on the matter. Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Teachers all over the globe have come up with countless ways of getting through to their students. Sadly, though, we don’t live in a perfect world. It isn’t always possible to have exciting lessons and alert students. From managing classes with 40 plus kids to rushing to finish the syllabus in time for the exams, teachers are faced with many, many constraints. For many of us, carrying out fun and engaging lessons on a regular basis can be nothing more than a pipe dream. In a society like ours where exam results are paramount, a teacher is under immense pressure to produce good grades. If they fail in this, their jobs (or at least, their career advancement) might be on the line. As a result, encouraging creativity and stimulating interest takes a back seat a lot of the time.

Yet, all is not lost. If all that they say is true, we can expect some much-welcome changes to our education system that may give teachers more leeway. Perhaps learning can finally be about more than just getting good grades. For now, teachers can begin to engage students by being passionate about whatever they are teaching. It is likely that the students will follow suit. Psychologists call this type of behaviour “emotional contagion”. Love your subject and your students will too. Go ahead and fake it if you must. You might be surprised to find that you really are making a difference.

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