by MARIA RAINIER
It may seem like a strange question. Learning demands that students be involved in their own education – that’s just the way it works. But there are two major types of involvement: passive and active. And in many cases, students are passively involved at best, a phenomenon I’ve encountered more times than I care to admit. I love being a piano teacher, but it’s always hard not to take it personally when a student just doesn’t care. That’s why I stopped letting that happen.
Of course, you can’t control students, and there will always be one or two who refuse to become invested in their own education. But I’ve adopted a philosophy of student choice over the years that has helped me gain students’ active involvement. In addition to using this strategy in piano lessons, I’ve found it useful when teaching writing as well, so it may be adaptable to different classrooms with a little creative tweaking. If you want that rewarding feeling that comes whenever you’ve got a student hooked on learning, try asking your students to share the decision-making process to jump-start your classroom’s involvement.
I discovered this by accident, which is a bit ironic since I’m a control freak myself. I didn’t think about the reasons behind its efficacy until I’d already found it to be useful, but it’s a logical step in education. K-12 students feel like they’re being controlled by everyone – parents, teachers, even friends – and they have almost no role in determining their own education. That can be a huge turn-off, so if you can share your decision-making responsibilities even nominally, it can go a long way toward earning the trust and intellectual investment of your students. Here’s an example from my experience:
I had a piano student who was completely ambivalent about piano practice, but she loved to chat and socialize. I was tired of trying to teach lessons that obviously bored her because I couldn’t get her engaged at any point. Frustrated, I asked her what kinds of games she liked to play with her friends. She mentioned playing with a “cootie catcher” (see image) at school, using it to “predict” the future for her and her friends. This was a lucky break for me – for the next lesson, I prepared a “cootie catcher” of my own with different warm-ups printed on the inside flaps. Instead of telling my student what to do in order to warm up, I let her “choose” by randomly selecting one of my predetermined warm-ups. She loved the idea, she got involved, and she asked me to make another one so she could use it at home to warm up before practicing. A little bit of observation, creativity, and “shared” decision-making can go a very long way.
Not everyone is going to be impressed by a little piece of basic origami, but the idea of bringing students’ interests into educational involvement is a powerful one. In addition to brainstorming your own ideas to promote this, you might try some of the following:
• Keep an anonymous suggestion box in your classroom. After introducing a new activity, pass around small sheets of paper and encourage students to give you their honest feedback: what did they like about the experience? What would they change about it?
• If the material you’re teaching isn’t sequential, have students vote on what they’d like to learn next.
• Create a randomized system of selection so your students can “choose” how to spend the last ten or fifteen minutes of class. You might make a “wheel of fortune” with options like peer editing, homework time, spelling game, math bingo, or any number of other educational activities your students might enjoy.
• If you incorporate any role play into your classroom, let students choose their characters out of a hat.
• If you can set parameters for a decision that affects your students’ education, give them the chance to make a selection within those parameters. You retain control, but they get the satisfaction of being actively involved in their own education.
Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online degrees. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.