Attention, Please

“On the back of your notecard, please write one thing that I can do to make this class better for you.”

“Don’t make it boring,” fourteen year old me wrote on the back of my card. This was the first day of my high school biology class. The teacher had never risen from his table at the front of the room, and had just spent the previous 40 minutes talking in a monotone about rules and grading and class procedures. I had a feeling it was going to be a long year.

I had taken biology before. The previous summer, I had attended a seminar at Purdue, where we spent two weeks taking intensive college-level classes. Anatomy & Physiology was the morning class. Physics of Light and Color was in the afternoon. In the bio class, we dissected pigs and learned to identify different kinds of cells in a microscope. It was difficult, but definitely engaging. I had a feeling this class would be different.

Bored student

This teacher had a captive audience, and he knew it. He did a great job of breaking biology down into vocabulary words and process steps that could be memorized and repeated. And, in the pre-Internet days, he was the only game in town. Everything that was worth knowing about biology was in this man’s head, and he was going to grace us with his extensive knowledge.

Looking back, I really don’t know why he was there. He clearly didn’t love kids. He didn’t work to build a rapport with his students. And he seemed to view his content area as just a list of things we needed to know. There was no passion there at all. Now, 37 years later, the one thing I remember most about that class was that I was in that class when we heard about the Challenger disaster, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including the first teacher in space. He mentioned it at the beginning of class, in the same monotone we were used to by then. But it didn’t have anything to do with photosynthesis or whatever we were studying that day, so he quickly moved on.

I got a C in that class. I was good enough at playing the school game to memorize some of the stuff he wanted us to know, and I repeated it back on the tests. It wasn’t difficult, necessarily, I just didn’t feel a need to do better than that. I never took another biology class.

I wonder — if I were 15 again, sitting in that room — how I would do now. My bio teacher didn’t have to compete for his students’ attention. Sure, we could pass notes or stare out the window. But we didn’t have phones or social media or even hand-held games. Despite zero effort on his part, he was still the most interesting thing in the room.

Schlechty tells us there are only three ways to motivate students. We can build relationships with them. Elementary teachers are masters at this. Most first graders will do ANYTHING for their teacher because they love her and want to please her. Some teachers in older grades are good at this too, but it’s harder, and it doesn’t work for every teacher or every student.

We can engage students with work they’re interested in. We can give them problems to solve that they care about. We can offer some choices to pursue things they’re passionate about. We can encourage them to make connections among diverse ideas and build their own understanding of complex systems. We can relate the new ideas we want to teach to things our students already know and care about. We can leverage their ability to find, filter, and curate information to include multiple sources and perspectives, and we can help them navigate that landscape of information abundance. In short, we can not make it boring.

Or, we can go the other way. The third way to motivate students is extrinsically. If you comply with my directives, I will give you the grade you want. You need that grade to be eligible for sports, or to get into the college you want, or to get your parents off your back. It’s not about learning, necessarily. It’s more about living up to expectations, jumping through the right hoops, and doing the things required to get the outcome we want. This works well with compliant students who see education (or, at least, a degree) as important.

This is mostly how high school worked when I was in it. And it’s a game that I learned to play really well. Do the things required to get the outcome you want. Learn to ask questions like “is this for a grade?” and “is this on the test?” because those will help you separate the necessary tasks from the busy work. Figure out which teachers check homework. Know who uses the standard tests that come with the textbook. Above all, know the difference between required and optional.

Those are important skills, I guess. But they don’t have anything to do with biology.