3 Ways to Increase Student Engagement…tomorrow!

Recently, I watched a few teachers teach back-to-back. All of the teachers were asking good questions and responding to students appropriately, but there was something different about the last teacher I watched that day. They seemed to be doing something different that held the students’ attention. I don’t believe they were asking better questions and didn’t seem to have a magical lesson planned in comparison to the others. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks (one that I had been hit with before, but sometimes we need multiple tons to remind us of the painfully obvious). 

So, here are three things that last teacher was doing to get her kids engaged.

1) Move around the room. This teacher was rarely stationary. It is really easy to get stuck at the front of the room. Science classes often have that stupid demo table that gets in the way and lecture halls make it clear where the teachers is “supposed” to be. However, when we move, we play into the evolutionary adaptation that our eyes pay attention to movement. When we use a lot of wait time (as we should), moving out among the students seems to encourage them to consider a response.

2) Move away from the student that is talking. When one student started talking, the teacher seemed to back away from the speaker. They maintained eye contact, but put more distance (and more students) between the teacher and the student speaking. I noticed the rest of the students kept their eyes on the student speaker and the speaker seemed to be talking to the class rather than the teacher. By moving away from the speaker, the teacher seemed to bring the rest of the class into the conversation. This is not normal, but wow did it work. Our gut instinct is to move toward a speaker, but shifting this may get more kids involved.

3) Smile. This teacher really liked working with her students. I could literally see it on her face. She was smiling with her eyebrows raised and an open posture (hands out, leaning toward students). Students could tell she wanted to hear their ideas. This one seems obvious, but it’s really easy to forget. Sometimes I get bored by some topics I teach. However, this was a good reminder that my expressed enthusiasm (or lack thereof) directly impacts student engagement.

Sometimes we try to trick students into being engaged and they usually see through that really quickly. Technological approaches often result in entertainment rather than engagement or short-lived engagement. While I’ll continue to ask good questions and create interesting activities in the name of student engagement, sometimes it’s nice to see some of the simple strategies we have to encourage student engagement work so well. 

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Changing the world. 

Looking ahead is hard. I think most of us recognize that our teaching can always be better, but figuring out how to build that future for ourselves and our students is daunting. First, change requires us to be critical of what we are currently doing and that can be emotionally draining. Then, we have to figure out what to do first. Unfortunately, knowing what to do first is not always clear and what works for one person doesn’t always work for others.  We’ve got an uphill battle on our hands.

I was reminded of how difficult changing our teaching can be during a conversation I had with a colleague who currently teaches in the K-12 system. We were lamenting the constraints placed on teachers and he was explaining how he can’t just change everything all at once. I agreed that trying to change everything simultaneously was likely not going work and that when trying to change too much, we often fall flat on our face and the net gain is zero. So, we brainstormed one thing he could do differently – just one thing to make 5 minutes of his teaching more aligned to the future he envisions for his classroom. 

If we can change one thing enough times, we’ll change the world.

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Throwback Thursday: my first post 

Below is the very first post on this blog from November 30th, 2008. Reading it reminds me of listening to the very first recordings my band in high school made. They were terrible, but they were a start. 

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I am a teacher of 8th grade students in the midwest. The subject I am charged with teaching is science, specifically Earth Science. However, I use my classroom to teach students about critical thinking, cooperation, and many other life skills. I use technology pervasively in my classroom in an effort to both enhance my instruction as well as help students develop so-called “21st century skills”. Because of my high interest in technology and my use of technology in my classroom, as well as my extensive work in education I hope readers will gain new insight into common ideas and problems. I want to especially make clear the need to critically question the use of technology as a “magic-bullet” to fix all of our problems, both societal and educational. I will use my own classroom as a jumping-off-point to critique and further consider the use of technology in education. I also hope to draw from outside resources and maybe even gain reader contributions. Here goes nothing in the hopes of creating something!

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Face-to-Face vs. Online

I’ve been skeptical of online education for quite some time. First, putting courses online is often pursued for economic gain. Unfortunately, the infrastructue costs and low class sizes needed to make online courses effective mean the margin for profit is the same or worse than face-to-face education. This often results in less-than-effective courses being designed so that a lot of students can take them at once. Second, when studies do compare face-t0-face instruction with online instruction, the “experiment” (because it’s never randomly assigned) is done by comparing traditional lecture-based approaches that we already know are ineffective to the online treatment condition. In these studies, the two are typically found to be equivalent and then the technophilic authors spend most of the paper proclaiming the primacy of online condition because the students “liked it”. 

Yet, my interest in technology has me consistently wondering how online education might be done better. Part of me really wants to put online and face-to-face instruction to a real test. To do this, I’m envisioning a study with four conditions, all taught by the same teacher: 1) Face-to-face lecture-based, 2)  Online lecture-based, 3) Face-to-face research-based, and 4) Online research-based. I don’t know that conditions 1 and 2 are necessary, but they’d provide an interesting ability to make comparisons. One difficulty will be randomly assigning students, so we’d probably end up with a quasi-experiemental design. Then, there is the issue of outcomes to be measured. The best teaching, in my view, develops so much more than content knowledge, but content knowledge is an obvious measure. However, measuring content knowledge can be done via recall, explanation, or application. Then, how would interest, problem-solving ability, mindsets, epistemological beliefs, etc. be affected. Decisions, decisions.

I definitely know my thoughts on how this study might turn out. I doubt I’ll ever do the full study, but maybe a smaller version someday. My curiousity might just be enough to make me create an online course to compare to the face-t0-face version.

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Technology does not make me a better teacher.

I have always been curious about technology in education. Despite what I would call a fairly useless technology class in my preservice education, I tried incorporating technology whenever I could in my teaching. One of my first uses of online technology was to have a class message board. I also remember early efforts to record readings onto iPods for students to listen as they read. Later on in my K-12 career I introduced my 8th graders to Twitter. This was 2008, so they hadn’t yet heard of it. It was interesting to see them start to use their accounts years later when the platform became more pervasive. 

As time went on I became known as a “techy” teacher. In the time before 1:1 initiatives, the laptop cart resided in my room and the IT folks were always bringing me new gadgets to try. I was proud of my use of technology. Then, I heard someone say, “That’s Mr. Kruse, he’s a great teacher because he’s using technology all the time with kids.”  

Ugh.

I’m honored that the person thought I was a good teacher, but that “because” really bothered me. We all know of ways to use technology in ways that are not effective. Instead, I’d like to think I use technology effectively because I am an effective teacher. This switch in order is significant. When we understand how to teach well, we can better integrate technology into our teaching. Adding technology doesn’t magically make a bad teacher better. 

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Moving on from Scarcity

A mistake I repeatedly make is believing there is not enough of something to go around. I believe this flawed mindset is easier to see in business settings than in education, but it happens. It’s easy to see how the idea of market share leads to a scarcity mindset, but less obvious how public education can breed scarcity views. 

One way the scarcity mindset showed up for me was in how I wanted to be the teacher kids confided in. I wanted to be the teacher kids came back to visit. I wanted to be their favorite. What I missed was how different kids have different needs. I missed how some of my colleagues were better at meeting certain needs than I was. I missed that I was part of a team. I don’t need to be their favorite teacher, I need to do my best to help students continue to grow. 

My early blogging efforts were also largely informed by scarcity views. I desired more followers, more “likes”, and more retweets. What I’ve found is that if I write what has meaning for me, the likes and followers matter less. A scarcity mindset makes us focus on extrinsic outcomes and turns everything into a competition. Yet, just like teaching is a team effort, I find the community around social media is much better than anything I can accomplish by myself. 

A scarcity mindset also shows up in scholarship efforts. Striving to be the first to make a certain claim or establishing oneself as an authority by attacking others’ work is a hallmark of the scarcity mindset. Indeed, the need to be the first to make claims has led to ridiculously long discussion sections in which authors proclaim grandiose ideas well beyond what their data can support. No wonder the public grows wary of scholars. Clearly, there can be more than one authority in any given area and if we are really scholars, we should be seeking to build our collective understanding and seeking how our work interacts with the work of others rather than trying to establish primacy. 

Chasing accolades is tiresome. While I can’t say that I’ve completely moved on from a scarcity mindset, I know I am a lot happier when scarcity isn’t driving me. 

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4 Strategies to Ask Better Questions

One of the things I focus on when teaching teachers is the role of questions in teaching. To raise the expected level of thinking, the kinds of questions we ask matter. When I ask, “Does anyone know …?”, students can honestly answer that question with “I don’t”. If I ask, “Is this the reason…?”, students have a 50/50 chance with this yes/no question. So, I try very hard to not ask yes/no or dichotomous questions and encourage my students to do the same. Yet, yes/no questions are part of our daily exchanges and breaking this habit is difficult.

When I was a first year teacher, I told my 9th graders that I would buy them pizza if they caught me asking yes/no questions 50 times.  We kept track with tallies and eventually one class got pizza. Then a colleague of mine accused me of “bribing my students to behave” (people suck). After a few weeks of having students try to catch me in the act of asking yes/no questions, I had to stop as the students started paying more attention to the kind of question and less attention to the content of the question. Yet, I made a lot of progress very quickly in eliminating my use of yes/no questions in my teaching.

Below are some strategies I’ve used to move my questions away from yes/no and toward more thought-provoking questions:

1) Start every question with “What”, “How”, or “Why“.  I cannot think of a way to ask a yes/no questions if the question starts with one of these three words. While I can certainly ask low-level questions with these words, at the very least, these questions are likely to be open-ended. Of course, this means I have to actually want to hear multiple responses instead of just a very specific response. 

2) Ask the better question first. Some people claim we have to ask the yes/no question first so we can ask the follow up thought-provoking questions.  This is not true.  One example of asking the yes/no question first is, “Do you think the phases of the moon are caused by the Earth’s shadow?” (Student response). “Why?” The first question is unnecessary. Instead, we could ask, “How do you think the Earth relates to the phases of the moon?” Or “Why can’t the moon phases be explained by the Earth’s shadow?” In the latter question, I am giving the students some information, but am asking them to explain. Even if we asked the yes/no question first, the students could simply be guessing. 

3) Increase wait time. Most teachers only allow for less than a second of silence between utterances. If we are asking better questions, this is not enough time for students to process. Not only are we robbing our students of processing time, but also ourselves. Raising our wait time to 3-4 seconds (after our questions and after students’ responses) will increase student participation and gives us time to think more carefully about how to phrase the next question.

4) Record my teaching and watch it regularly. When I first started recording myself I was shocked at how bad I was at doing the things I thought I was doing. I learned in my preservice education that extended teacher talk and yes/no questions are not best practice. Yet after weeks of student teaching, I was still doing most of the talking and asking way too many yes/no questions. Watching my teaching was a tremendous wake up call. I still record myself regularly to help guard against slipping back into old patterns. 

Is there ever a time to ask yes/no questions? Yes (See what I did there). If a kid looks like they are going to vomit, I don’t need them to explain, I just need to know if they need to go to the bathroom. I once had a mute student who would only communicate with nods and head shakes during verbal exchanges. I certainly expected that student to explain their thinking in writing, but when talking with them verbally, it made no sense to ask them “why” questions. Yet, I think we should tread lightly when looking for reasons to not ask better questions. Perhaps, instead of asking, “Is there ever a time to ask yes/no questions?”, we should ask, “Why should we work harder to avoid yes/no questions?” 

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