What is the miracle candle ingredient for engagement?

98279C45-1E84-4A03-95D7-83F124EE3EBEIt fascinates me that when I look back on my many years as a student, only small snippets of memory emerge from the general haze.

I remember in grade 1, in Malaysia, that Mr Thomas taught us a lesson about copying, about teacher expertise, and about honesty. He was calling out the answers to a Maths quiz that we were self-grading, and when he came to 6+5, he said the answer was 12.

Immediately, a whole bunch of kids hastily and sneakily scribbled out their “11s” and replaced them with a 12. Then they ticked their answer and smiled. He, of course, knew that this was happening, and walked around the classroom to see who had written 11 and given themselves a cross. I had done exactly that and so he invited me to the front of the classroom.

He then asked me what I thought 5+6 was. I said 11. I was pretty sure I was right but it felt wrong to question the teacher who, of course, was way better at Maths than any of us. Which I guess is what he wanted us to think about, because he shook my hand and congratulated me on “believing in my own mind”.

He then talked to the class about how cheating in a test is only cheating yourself because you’re pretending to know something you don’t, which means you miss an opportunity to learn it. And that it’s ok to think that the teacher may be wrong, and to tell him so.

That whole episode is still as clear as day.

I also recall, in primary school back in Australia, being taken out of class for an extension literacy program. Each week we had to write two-minute book reviews about a chapter book we had read that week. I read “The Dark is Rising” series and I remember the palm cards and the many times I timed myself reading the palm cards in my obsession to finish right on the two minute mark.

I remember being featured in the local newspaper giving chest compressions to another student (all for show, of course) displaying our recent learning of CPR.

And, most recently, for three of the five subjects I’ve studied for my Masters, I’ve been given 6s and 7s for my assignments. The other two, only 4s and 5s. https://ateacherislikeacandle.wordpress.com/2020/09/21/are-grades-killing-student-motivation-to-learn/

Looking back on these experiences through a teaching lens, I can gather evidence of what the secret is to making learning “stick” with students.

It helps if it’s wrapped up in a story. If there’s a moral and the teacher is genuinely caring about you and your needs as a lifelong learner.

It also appears to be crucial that students are challenged. Pushed out of their comfort zones just enough that they have to put in just a little bit more effort than usual in order to succeed.

Recognition of achievements is also important. Those chest compressions I gave that day were the best I’d ever done. I stepped up, because I had been specially chosen, and given the special privilege, to represent the school.

And which subjects did I do poorly on in my recent study? The ones I didn’t choose. The mandatory subjects which, try as I might, I could not in any way relate to my life or to my career.

And yet teachers expect kids to engage with, and even enjoy, everything they are tasked with, often without a moral that links it to their lives, with very little in-built challenge, and with no high expectations about, nor acknowledgement of, their efforts. That’s not exactly lighting the way for students.

Food for thought.

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