I have become interested in the idea that in order to get students engaged, we as educators need to make some kind of interest connection with them. I know, you say, that is what relevance is all about. Yeah yeah, I know. But to me, this idea goes way beyond relevance. It goes more towards how do you make a lesson RELEVANT AND INTERESTING?
To me, relevance and interest are two separate terms, and just because something is relevant, it does not mean it is of interest. And just because something is interesting, does not mean it is relevant. I can have a great interesting lesson that means nothing either to the standards that I need to teach, or to the kids I am teaching. On the other hand, I can have a lesson that kills it when it comes to relevance in my student’s lives but be boring as hell.
This goes back to that idea that there needs to be some kind of emotional attachment to learning, as I wrote about in “Remembering the Kiss.” We don’t have to be recreating the late Robin William’s manic routines in front of them in order to be engaging or to create that connection. I remember in the movie “Teachers” where Richard Mulligan plays a man that has escaped the asylum and was mistaken for a substitute teacher: He actually ended up being more interesting to the students than the regular teacher, reenacting historical theater of the absurd in the classroom:
Boring it certainly was not, but whether the students were actually learning, well, that is left up to the viewer.
We are now blessed with an overabundance of ways of teaching. Indeed, in my 27 or so years as an educator, I cannot recall a time when there ever was such an infusion of knowledge, techniques, sharing, and general just education-related material available as there is today. Online, in class, at home, at the coffee house, listening while riding the bus or driving a car, there is now so many opportunities to learn that really someone must purposely avoid it.
Yet, I wonder if those opportunities are any better than they were before? Are we growing more crops in our larger fields or more weeds like in this picture:
Do we still produce low interest lessons?
We want to create a sweet spot where our lessons are both high in relevance and interest:
I was thinking about flipped classrooms the other day. I know, everyone is hot for flipped classrooms, where you take the lecture (READ THAT: BORING) part of the lesson and “flip it” so that the kids get the boring part of the class at home, and the actual stuff they would have done at home in class. (I have several entries about flipping the classroom here.) So are we flipping the boredom to home instead of in class? Is that such a good thing? I am not sure. Are we not just shifting stuff around instead of making it more engaging and more relevant in many flipped class examples? Afterall, boring is boring, whether it is presented in class or on a computer screen at home. Watching this on a computer screen does not make it more meaningful, relevant or interesting:
Dan Melzer’s book “Assignments across the Curriculum A National Study of College Writing" looked at over 2000 writing assignments in post secondary schools. What he found was not surprising: Boring writing assignments lead to boring writing. As he recently told Inside Higher Ed:
"There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”
Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says. “Based on their discussions of grading criteria, instructors devote as much time to formal correctness as they do talking about content, and often grammatical correctness was a baseline for acceptability” – even when most syllabuses had typos or grammatical errors, Melzer says in the book; one of the “strongest patterns” in his research was the expectation of perfect grammar.
“At a minimum, your writing should be free of spelling errors and grammatical errors,” reads one sample assignment. Another business law professor’s assignment offers very specific guidance about how different grammatical and spelling errors will affect a student’s grade. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the professor says: “Please offer analysis, also.”
Melzer argues that such an apparent emphasis on surface-level writing sends students “mixed messages” about the value of higher-order writing skills. It would also impede many students’ ability to “let things flow” to build writing fluency, he says.
You can find Melzer’s original paper here.
This HAS to apply at all levels, not just post secondary AND it has to apply to assignments other than just writing. If we create boring ,single disciplinary, low cognitive ability assignments, we will get back from students exactly what we ask them to provide: Low level, low interest papers.
If we assign those types of problems, we should not complain that students cannot “think out of the box” or “lack creativity.” If the assignment is stuck in the box, don’t expect the students to exist anywhere but in that same box.
This certainly makes the case for programs such as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) which has been around for quite a while, but is not used widely. Indeed, Melzer seems to be quite an advocate of WAC:
"The instructors in my research who assign the widest variety of purposes, audiences, and genres, who provide students with interesting and complex rhetorical situations rather than just the traditional lecture/exam format, and who teach writing as a process through peer response or responding to rough drafts are most often teaching in a course connected in some way to a Writing Across the Curriculum program. This may mean a writing-intensive course, a team-taught course with an English department faculty member, a learning community, or a course connected to a writing fellows program. Instructors from writing-intensive courses connected to established WAC programs at ￼institutions such as the University of Missouri, University of Pittsburgh, Cornell, University of Hawaii, Duke, University of Massachusetts, and Stanford assigned the most writing, asked students to write for the greatest variety of audiences in the greatest variety of genres, and adopted common WAC pedagogical tools such as journaling, freewriting, grading rubrics, and peer response."
"Boring is a boring does" to paraphrase Forrest Gump.