Promoting Interest in the Classroom
My oldest daughter is now a sophomore in high school. She is attending Westland High School where I also attended years ago. Together she and I attended an open house not long after school started; she was excited to get the new year under way and introduce me to all of her teachers (a couple of which were my teachers). I was especially happy to see Jack Buckingham, Reggie Wagstaff and Cheryl Sohner—teachers that I looked up to as a teenager. Overall, it didn’t seem all too different than when I had attended.
One thing I witnessed, however, distressed me immensely. I sat in one classroom where the teacher said something like, "Students who come to this class to learn the curriculum are going to be bored. Luckily, we have a lot of extra-curricular activities to make it interesting.”
The alarm bells started sounding like sirens in my head, and I silently seethed at this statement. For the sake of anonymity, I won’t mention the teacher or subject… since it doesn’t really matter what the subject is; the statement was offensive at face value, and would have been equally inappropriate no matter what the subject was.
It’s a fact that not everyone finds every topic interesting; it’s equally true that humans tend to find some types of topics generally more appealing than other topics (which is a fact that leads to marketing schemes that always focus on sexiness, etc). But that reality does not excuse any teacher to say to a group of students (and their parents) that the present class is teaching a boring subject. That statement belied a lack of passion in the topic, which speaks volumes about the qualification of a teacher. No teacher has the right to implore kids to learn something if he/she is not either interested in, or passionate about, the topic at hand! How can a teacher foster interest in a topic he/she deems boring? (In this particular case, I only pray that the teacher was speaking in a pragmatic sense—noting that the topic is inherently boring to students in general; though I did not feel that this was necessarily the case—my impression was that the teacher was unexcited about the actual academic topic.)
I have several interests that are not shared by many people that I meet. I understand that not everyone enjoys learning about Object Oriented Programming; that many people couldn’t care less about John Dewey or Carl Sagan; that some people do not like basketball; and that insect photography is not appealing to many people. But I feel that I would perform a disservice to anyone to say that those topics are boring! Instead, I see it as an important goal to get people around me to see that these topics are interesting, meaningful and worthwhile—in spite of the fact, and perhaps because of the fact, that some people do not like these topics. I am happy to teach anyone those things where I have expertise or knowledge. At the same time, I would be doing a disservice to try and teach any topic that I neither have interest nor expertise: for me to teach quantum physics would be a disservice because, though I have interest, I have no expertise or advanced understanding; for me to teach a course on pop culture would also be a disservice, because it is a topic with which I have no interest at all.
While I am projecting my own outlook onto the classroom, it is an extremely important issue that concerns me. There are so many valuable things to learn, and so little time in life to learn them; most people fail to learn all that they can not because of ability, but more because they lack appreciation and curiosity. Teachers that pique the interest of students are artisans of their craft that unlock potential; those that mechanically go down the checklist of facts that the curriculum dictates to expose the kids to, without a passionate mission to inspire and interest the kids in those items, are not doing what they are supposed to do.
Dan Rather has said, "If it’s important, find a way to make it interesting…” He was referring to news stories. But the same principle applies to scholastic topics. Inability to show passion about your topic as a teacher gives only one lasting impression on students—that the topic is pointless. Moreover, it could put off or discourage those students who do happen to have a natural interest in the topic at hand.
If the process of education can be defined as the effective communication of valuable information from one person to the next, there needs to be some foothold of common interest. With many topics, the visible value may not be obviously apparent to students, which further reinforces a need for an interested teacher.
John Dewey wrote in Education and Democracy, "By normal communication is meant that in which there is a joint interest, a common interest, so that one is eager to give and the other to take. It contrasts with telling or stating things simply for the sake of impressing them upon another, merely in order to test him to see how much he has retained and can literally reproduce.”
The trend in education to "transfer data” from textbook to pupil regardless of anyone’s interest is nothing new. Pragmatically, there may simply be no realistic way to make every learning situation interesting or visibly valuable. But the issue here is more about general situations and educational paradigms. Certainly a teacher discussing an entire course as boring is simply bad.
The issue does not stop at this one incident, however. Probably a worse manifestation of this is more subtle but much more pervasive: teachers spending a very large percentage of their time "preparing” kids for tests. The tests I speak of are various proficiency tests that many politicians have imposed on schools.
During one open house meeting with another teacher, I heard a breakdown of all the components that will be addressed in preparation for the upcoming proficiency test. Instead of hearing about all the wonderful things the kids would learn by the end of the year, I heard that the students would learn about a list of items that would make the students ready for the test. I understand that the intent of the test is to prove academic achievement. At the same time, the focus on these tests takes away the human element and passion that is the real foundation for a successful teacher/student relationship in the classroom. It may be hard to understand the difference between a teacher focusing on a test versus focusing on learning since they seem, at face value, to be different ways of saying the same thing; the reality is that the two, despite their subtle outward appearance, have different results in actual implementation.