How do I engage my students in my class? Why are they not responding to my methods? Why do they seem to be so bored that they cannot be bothered to answer my questions? Why are they not paying attention to me when I speak or explain?
Teachers, young, old, green and experienced sometimes find themselves in situations where they ask themselves these questions. They are inevitable in the world of teaching, even for the most experienced of teachers or lecturers and they are not necessarily a sign that a teacher is doing something horribly wrong, sometimes students can just be harder to engage and harder to activate. And perhaps, students these days are especially harder to engage than, say, 10 or 15 years ago. It seems that over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of teachers who face difficulties with engaging students in their class and thereby not reaching the goals that they were hoping for. But how can this be?
Are children just becoming harder to control and harder to engage in general? Or are teachers just of worse and worse quality and simply not able to provide the necessary encouragement and motivation for their students?
I think possibly we need to consider both reasons. Not because children are simply getting less interested or because teachers are getting less able, but because the world around us is changing but we do not change our teaching methods to adapt to these new situations. 15 years ago, children did not have as many computer games, electric toys, cellphones and MP3 players to keep them company, and as such, they were a lot easier to entertain in the classroom because we would just do with the children what they were doing at home with their friends. We would play games, read comics and sing songs, because that was how children then entertained themselves.
But the situation today is quite different. How do children entertain themselves today? That’s right, cellphones, MP3 players and video games. And they are hard to compete with in a classroom, if all you have to offer is singing songs and playing games that were popular 20 years ago when you were young yourself. The world around us is changing, and the world around the students are changing and so our teaching methods are becoming obsolete because they were once as interesting or perhaps more interesting than our students free time activities, but now, they are incredibly boring compared to what the students can now do at home in their free time.
If you can stimulate your students, you have a better chance at keeping them interested in learning more. But if you are consistently doing activities that your students find to be boring, you will never stimulate them, and they will never have an interest in learning. Without interest, you will never get their attention, without their attention, they will not understand and if they do not understand you end up being frustrated and angry and THEN the students will really dislike you.
It is a widely accepted fact, that teaching is the most fun and learning is the most effective when it is enjoyable for both the students and the teachers. But in this day and age, how can we achieve that special atmosphere where knowledge is simply sucked up by our students like a sponge. How to we create a classroom where the students are interested in what we are teaching, learning it AND understanding it without us teachers having to spend every waking moment worrying about how to get there?
I think the solution is quite simple, let’s do what we were doing 15 years ago. Bring what the students think is entertaining to the classroom and use them as materials to turn these little uninterested robots back into real children who love to learn.
Working as a teacher in China, this is exactly what I have been doing for the past year, and you would be surprised how much a little technology will help make your students interested in what you have to say to them. Sometimes, just bringing it into the classroom will help you. You do not even have to use it. Walking into a classroom with an iPhone or an iPad in your hand in China will immediately get the attention of the students and they will become interested in you. If the students are interested in you, they will also be interested in whatever you have to say.
Now, I have always hated Apple products and I swear to Samsung, so when I walk into a classroom, it is with a Samsung Galaxy SII phone and my Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet that pretty much gives me the same reaction, something around the lines of “Teacher, so cool!”
China is a pretty good example of a country where teaching styles are undergoing a dramatic chance, something that many other countries could learn something from. China is still a developing country and as such is still lacking a few of the almost freely available luxuries that we consider for granted in Europe and especially Denmark where I, myself, am from. I am used to having high-speed wireless at every school and classroom, used to high-powered computers with big monitors and wide-screen projectors. The problem is, in Denmark we are not really actively changing the way we teach. I mean, sure enough we have started to do power-point presentations but that is really just a baby step. In China they are constantly trying to renew their methods, but they do not yet have the capacity to provide all these electronic and high-tech services.
So which place is worse, the place trying to reach new heights but not having the needed equipment or the country that has everything and refuses to use it to its fullest potential?
Well, I left Denmark 2 years ago so you can easily figure out what my opinion is. I am a deep admirer of how China is trying to change its education system and really make improvements and I am disappointed in the Danish education system for not even caring enough to really try to use what they have.
But as much as the Chinese government is trying, they are still struggling with Chinese students who are sometimes hard to make interested in a lesson. They are the same as students in the west, influenced by iPad’s and MP3’s and getting bored with the pencil and paper approach offered at most schools. And this is what I want to try to look into, see where I can make improvements both for the sake of my own teaching and for the sake of helping other teachers but also, and most importantly, to ensure that I give the highest possible quality of teaching to my students.
But students in China are not just affected by the technology around them; they are also still affected by the old teaching methods that the country is now trying to get rid of. Chinese teaching methods are a result of overcrowded classrooms with up towards 90 students cramped together in a room more suited to fit half that number. In a room where not even the teacher can move around, teaching style and methodologies are severely limited. You cannot play games, you cannot interact with the students on a personal level and everything has to be done in a group fashion, never individual. And as such, the students lose their interest in calling for individual attention because they know they are never going to get it. Their only hope is to wait for the teacher to hopefully call their name.
This where the robot metaphor becomes apparent in the classroom. You have a classroom of smart and bright young children who will do whatever you ask them to. If you call on them, they will answer your question, ask them to write and they will write. But if you ask them to volunteer to answer for a problem, you will get complete silence from everyone. Because no one is accustomed to calling attention on himself or herself and he or she expects you to choose a student to answer for you. This is when especially inexperienced teachers, especially in China, get confused and starts to lose their confidence because they feel like their students are not paying attention, not taking part and not learning anything. In reality, they are just waiting for you to choose one to lead the way for the rest.
But if you make the students interested in your person, if you make the students interested in what you are doing and saying, then you get their attention. And when you get their attention you can start being creative with how you use their attention when teaching them and this way, your teaching goals can really reach otherwise unknown heights.
When I first started noticing my students’ reaction to my Galaxy tablet, I immediately noticed that they all wanted to look at it and touch it. It was not important what was on the screen, but the big touch interface was interesting and they all wanted to have a go and moving things around. Therefore, when I started making small programs to move words around on a screen to make sentences I got their attention and they were playing games and making sentences not even realizing that they were learning at the same time. To them, they were just playing a computer game with words. I started to experiment with using PowerPoint presentations in my classes and found that simply teaching from a presentation is just as boring as teaching with pen and paper. However, if you turn the presentation into an interactive game that the students can take part in, you have a completely new situation on your hands with active students who are dying to give the game a go, and be smarter or faster than the student who went before them.
But PowerPoint presentations are time-consuming and you can only play the same games so many times before they get boring. That is the next big challenge with technology. There is so much of it, that we get bored easily and then we want to change it. I found a good idea that I am currently developing on, where you can connect a number of wireless computer mice to the same computer, and then use all of them at the same time. Which means where before, you could only have one person interacting on a PowerPoint presentation, now you can have up to twenty students playing at once, thereby possibly engaging an entire class at once, something not easily done in a classroom unless playing conventional games (that students now find very boring).
The golden rule here, that I am trying to get across, is get closer to your students. Find out, what they are doing in their free-time, what they really like and what they are interested in and be creative with the information that you get. Turn video-games into a teaching tool, turn an MP3 player into a voice recorder and have the students record their reading for practice. Use videos, famous movies or cartoons to practice listening and comprehension. Find a movie with Chinese subtitles that you can turn on and off as you please.
The possibilities are endless, the technology is there, all around you, a smart phone, a tablet a laptop there are so many possibilities, and they do not have to be super advanced. But start using some of the things that the students use in their everyday life and they will be more interested in your lessons as well.
I really think it is that easy, because I have done it myself and my lessons went from good to amazing. Take that extra time to get to know your students and learn from them, you will be surprised how much a student can teach a teacher about teaching. Then, you can really turn your students from being robots to being real children.