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Pizazz and razzle-dazzle

I never liked attending in-service trainings as a classroom teacher. It felt like they all had the same message: “Here’s a clever way to trick your students into learning!”

Sometimes it involved using rap music, one time it was about “anticipation” games—there’s always a new strategy that’s supposed to help teachers “connect” with students. And I guess using rap music is better than worksheets, but I’m not sure students actually learn more. That is, class may be more fun. The energy in the room may be positive. But that’s a long way away from students internalizing a new idea or concept and holding it forever.

California is looking at adopting “open source digital textbooks,” which contain changeable material that can be shared between teachers. An article I read today suggested “inserting a football team’s name into a word problem . . . can help engage students’ attention.” One teacher was quoted in the story as saying open source digital textbooks are “exactly what we need.”

I think this attitude stems from the belief that the problems we face in education are about content delivery. If only we can deliver the academic content with more pizzazz, then students will start passing our standardized tests.

The irony here is that in our quest to help students learn, we ignore the students. If a student is not interested in the plight of Willy Loman, then all the razzle-dazzle in the world is not going to make reading Death of a Salesman a profound experience. In a competition between a charismatic teacher with state-of-the-art technology teaching 30 uninterested kids versus an average teacher with a chalkboard and 30 kids genuinely curious about the material, I’ll take the latter every time.

Transforming our schools does not require millions of dollars of technology. It starts by simply asking kids what they’re interested in learning.

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5 thoughts on “Pizazz and razzle-dazzle

  1. “If a student is not interested in the plight of Willy Loman, then all the razzle-dazzle in the world is not going to make reading Death of a Salesman a profound experience. ”

    I find this eerily related to what I wrote last night at

    Posted by kima | December 9, 2010, 4:11 am
  2. We definitely need to give students more choice about what they learn. It is a common thread among our discussions that students lack choice about what they do during school, but they come to school from a life at home where they generally have a lot of choice. No wonder they often feel disconnected from school.

    I remember when I was growing up, usually the most interesting things I was learning were happening at school (with the exception of computer programming which I taught myself). I don’t think this is true for many students. They have way more ideas available to them at their fingertips than most of them can access in school.

    The question most people will have is, how do enable students to have this choice, while keeping some measure of accountability in schools? I think most of here know some answers to this question, but it is one we should be prepared to answer, or our discussion of personalization of education is going to fall flat.

    Posted by dwees | December 9, 2010, 9:20 am
  3. I agree that students should have choice in what and how they learn. Choice is a great motivating factor. Too often we rely on technology and superficial wrappings to glam up the effort of learning what we’ve planned rather than stepping back to ask why we’re so determined to “trick” students into learning this particular thing, and why the “tricks” seem necessary.

    But isn’t part of education also exposing students to experiences and concepts that they might never have chosen on their own — or that they may not have even been aware existed as possible choices? If we offer instruction based only on what students are interested in learning, they may well miss a whole world of experiences and ideas they will never know they would have had an interest in or a need for.

    How do we balance the safety and comfort of students choosing what they already know with the risk and growth of students experiencing what they have never encountered before?

    Posted by Anne Kemp | December 10, 2010, 8:15 am
  4. I love the spirit of this post. I am bemused by ads in Ed Week and Educational Leadership that promise workshops, conferences and and whole weekends (whoohoo!) of tips and tricks based on BRAIN BASED research, so that you can up the dazzle, and you, teacher, can razzle! As if serious, real learning, and a long-term commitment to learning, depended on having the coolest prezi.

    But here’s the complex things to hold up. As Anne notes, choice alone does not guarantee engagement or meaningfulness (for haven’t we all been bored and frustrated by projects of our own choosing?), and, as is a perennial discussion in my undergraduate teaching classes, being asked to learn about things you don’t think you’re interested in, is one of the benefits of education. (Education is the opportunity to encounter ideas, theories, paradigms, ways of looking at the world that your life doesn’t offer otherwise. My students say all the time how glad they were that they were “forced” to take a chemistry class, or a seminar on feminist theory.) The thing that I think your post points up is the slipshod, phony relationship between teaching and learning that “razzle dazzle” makes clear: fundamentally, many teachers don’t think what they’re asked to teach is very important, so you need to dress it up with something sexy. (What if the instructor him or herself found what they were teaching profoundly compelling and interesting? Isn’t that what makes the rest of us interested?) And if you don’t take the minds of students very seriously, respect their intellects and capacity for deep reasoning and concern for important matters, well, then, you need to kind of razzle a bit. To meet ’em at their level.

    In most school situations, there is very little real choice about what to learn, or what there is is coercive and superficial. So any choice at all is a welcome relief from a diet of forced compliance, for most students, unless they’ve already slipped into numbness. Why do we ask kids to do the things they do in school? Do we have real theories about it? Can we say why we think it matters, and is meaningful? Maybe that’s a test we should apply to all situations.

    And are we as teachers prepared to make a case for why this is compelling to us? Why we think it matters?

    Posted by Kirsten | December 10, 2010, 11:30 am


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