Getting into the Mind of Our 21st Century Competition to Make Learning Happen

Today, I was reading a chapter from Phillip Schlechty’s book Shaking Up the School House and came across some words that transformed some of my thinking about education, teaching, and student learning. This particular passage, made me recall some advice my cooperating teacher gave me about 21 years ago. In her wisdom, she told me, “You don’t have to make everything fun for kids. I just tell them I’m a teacher not an entertainer. If you want to pay me want entertainers make, then I’ll entertain you.” Those words, while not necessarily a mantra guiding my teaching practice, they were an excuse when some classroom activity that I had worked on for hours flopped with the sound of some kid in the back saying, “This is boring.” My cooperating teacher’s words soothed my ego in those particular instances, but deep inside I knew that kind of thinking did not really satisfy my desire to reach students.

Twenty-one years later, I realize “the entertainer” argument was really a white flag, a surrender in the battle to teach students. Some would even call it an excuse to quit. With all due respect to my cooperating teacher, to whom I owe my teaching career, it is that kind of thinking that sometimes keeps teachers from growing and exploring new ways to make learning happen.

In his book, Shaking Up the School House Schlechty points out how teachers whine and cry about having to compete with TV, video games, and DVDs. He suggests as an educational tactic that teachers study these competitors who compete for the attention of students and learn from them just how they capture and keep the their attention. He suggests that teachers ask three questions:

  • Who are the competitors for the time and attention of our students?
  • What do they provide our students that we are not providing? How might we provide these things, and are we willing to do so?
  • If we are not able or willing to provide these things, can we provide alternatives that are equally attractive?

Schlechty’s book is from 2001. That was a time before Facebook, MySpace, iPods, iTouch phones, and wide-spread texting. Our students nine years later have even more toys to distract them. Now we could take the approach that some take. “Let’s take their toys away while they’re in school. They don’t need them to learn.” But I think we really need to take Schlechty’s advice instead. We know that text-messaging, iTunes, and Facebook, not to mention video games, are the competitors for the time and attention of our students. We must know who our competitors are. We need to know how to use them ourselves. We need to quit deluding ourselves that we can ban these and even hope to keep the attention of our students using old instructional methods. Our competition for the time and attention of our students is more fierce than ever. Eliminating the competition is an exercise in futility. Instead, once we know who they are, we need to move on to Schlechty’s second question.

Just what do Facebook, text messaging, and iPods offer to students that we as teachers are not providing? The answers to those questions are connections, novelty, control, creativity, independence, and list goes on. Just check out the writings of Don Tapscott for a complete list of just what our kids get from these technologies. Just as Schlechty points out, we need to then ask, How might we provide those things to our students and are we willing to provide them? And, the answer to that question is rather obvious, we can provide those things to our students by having them utilize the same technologies that compete for their time and attention from learning. In other words, we take advantage of the technological environments that consume their time and attention already, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

When Schlechty wrote those questions, teachers had less competition for the time and attention of their students. In only nine years, that competition has only become more intense with the addition of many more players. Perhaps my cooperating teacher had one point correct, “We aren’t entertainers” and I dare say we should not try to be. However, asking how we can make our teaching more relevant to our students is not taking on the role of entertainer. Taking on the competition for student time and attention is just plan smart teaching. It is time for teaching to become 21st century instruction.

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