Friday, February 27, 2015

Let it Snow or Let it Go: Evaluate your Instructional Activities

There are two competing thoughts about snow this time of year. The first thought of snow is one of wonder, beauty and anticipation. For people like me who live down in Texas, we see snow once every two or three years, so the mere thought of snow coming down brings fascination and excitement to my children's eyes.  I have to admit that I get pretty fired up about it as well.

Now the other side of the spectrum about snow elicits wonder but for a completely different reason.  My friends from the north who have been under several feet of snow for the better part of the  last two or three months express wonder about the snow.  They just wonder when it will ever go away.

Instructional Activities are like Snow

When a new activity is presented to the class, students will engage if and only if the task is interesting and relevant to them.  The higher the relevance, the more interest the activity will generate.  When used sparingly and more importantly at the appropriate time for meaningful learning, instructional activities can bring a lot of joy and excitement to learning.  When the activity is highly interesting and effective, students will want to know when the activity will return. 

When an instructional activity is overused or worse used as the primary learning tool of the class, students will wonder when the lesson will ever end.  Because the activity returns again and again, day after day, student engagement becomes snowed under by mundane redundancy.  If not addressed quick enough, students could become frost-bitten from the effects of the activity or frozen to learning all together.   If you need an mental model of what I'm talking about, see Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

"Let it Go" or "Let it Snow"

To ensure that your student engagement doesn't get snowed under by the overuse of an activity, here are some warning signs that will tell you whether the activity needs to stay or go.
  • Neurons freeze
  • Unhappiness accumulates
  • Motivation plummets
  • Behavioral issues increase
When teachers of excellence notice these warning signs, they make adjustments, and they determine what causes student apathy to the lesson.  If they need to, they find a new activity, because they understand this fact about learning.  Instructional activities are not the learning.  They are a tool for learning.  These teachers figure out how they can utilize a new or different activity to warm up their students to learning because they understand that student engagement changes like the weather.

At the end of the day, all of us can predict when students are becoming numb to any of our instructional activities.  The key is to be observant and responsive.  We have to understand that students have different affinities for learning and various reasons that they choose to connect or disconnect from learning.  After all, it is their learning, and when we focus on making learning fun and relevant to our students every day, they will never let go of their wonder and anticipation for learning.

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