In my last article, I ended with the question of the teacher’s role in learning. Does the teacher need to be an entertainer? How does the teacher motivate and make learning engaging and satisfying for students?
Teachers are often blamed for the lack of learning, along with the lack of interest and motivation in their students. If only teachers would make learning interesting, exciting, and fun! After all, the preschool child loves to learn and explore, and it is our dull unimaginative school culture with its boring textbooks and lack of innovative teachers that takes the natural desire to learn out of the child. There is tremendous pressure on teachers today to make learning fun and exciting.
This is all part and parcel of progressive education, and it is terribly confusing for parents, children, and teachers. It is the impetus for all sorts of foolish learning activities that rob children of a decent education. It is the reason for sitting on the floor, field trips, projects, guest speakers, anything, anything, anything, except pencil and paper, reading, writing, and math, none of which can be turned into fun. Really effective learning activities resemble work, and since we are all naturally lazy, they aren’t exactly fun. So what does the teacher do to motivate students to work and learn?
It is simple: It is the enthusiasm, passion, and knowledge of the teacher that makes a lesson compelling and motivates students to learn. You don’t have to be charismatic, entertaining, creative, or innovative to be a great teacher. Yes, there are very brilliant people who can hold a room spellbound, but few are in the classroom, and there aren’t enough of them to teach even a fraction of our students anyway. But all of us can possess enthusiasm and passion for knowledge and motivate students to learn.
Let me give you an example.
In the Methodist Church we attended while my boys were in elementary school, I taught a class of 4th graders that was very popular and well attended. It got the notice of the other teachers and administrative staff. Even the pastor of this large, prosperous church came by to compliment me. My students seemed to be very motivated to come to Sunday school class, and they enjoyed it. The staff and other teachers thought I was some kind of wizard, since this was so unusual. One teacher down the hall had won the prestigious Public School National Teacher of the Year Award, and even she was amazed, which only added to my reputation.
I had some very bright students in that class, one of whom later won the national teen Jeopardy competition! He showed up one Sunday with his mom, who kind of apologized for her absence that year, but confessed that she always had to drag her son to Sunday school. But the next Sunday she showed up thrilled that Matthew had begged to come back. She brought him faithfully every Sunday that year. He did not want to miss a class. Why were my students so enthusiastic? Why did they enjoy their Sunday school class so much?
Interestingly, none of the other teachers or administrative staff at church came into my class to see what brilliant, innovative, creative things I was doing. So what did I do to make learning so much fun that students actually wanted to come back each week? Here is my routine for that Sunday school class. The first thing I did was write a memory verse on the black board for the students to copy on a 3×5 note card. We put the reference on one side and the verse on the opposite. (A lot of the verses I taught in those years are the ones I included in the Memoria Press Christian Studies program and Copybooks.) We talked about the verse, its interesting words, what it meant, and then recited it together several times. Students came back every week with their clutch of 3×5 cards of memory verses so they could add a new one. They loved it. (It is important to choose verses that appeal to the concrete minds of the students, verses that have drama and poetry. So many times we choose verses that we like as adults that are not very appealing to the young.) Each week, I pulled out cards for students, to see if they could recite old verses. Most of them studied during the week so they could get their verses right.
Not very creative, was it? But for children who had never before been asked to learn anything in Sunday school, it was downright exciting
For our Bible story time I used a children’s Bible story book with good text and pictures instead of the bland Sunday school materials they gave me. I had to keep the attention of twenty kids squeezed into a classroom designed for ten. You can’t beat the Bible for dramatic stories, so why use anything else? I wrote questions for all stories on cards to use for review games. I let the Bible story do the teaching and limited the moralizing and preaching which I think detracts from the impact of the story.
We also learned the books of the Bible and recited them often. We did Bible drills to see who could find a book, chapter, and verse first. While we had our Bibles out, I let students read aloud around the room, sections corresponding to the story of the week. Students thought this was very grown-up and were motivated to read the Bible, much more than the childish Sunday school materials they were used to.
I didn’t do anything remarkable that anyone else couldn’t easily do—just my usual bag of tricks—content that is concrete, elevated, and meaningful. Lots of review questions, memorization, bees, and drills. Bingo. Learning is fun. Here is the secret: Learning is more fun when you actually learn something. Most Sunday school material is weak in content, never getting much beyond “Jesus loves me just as I am.” It is the insipid content of our modern curriculum, both religious and secular, that makes learning so dull and boring.
Schools love to show pictures of students doing anything in school except learning. Look at a typical school brochure, and you will see pictures of students in drama, art, music, athletics, labs, debate—anything but sitting at a desk reading or writing, which admittedly doesn’t make a compelling picture.
However, to show enthusiasm for learning, there is only one picture that really works. Do you know what it is? Think about it before you read on.
It is the picture of rows of students with their hands high in the air, facing a teacher at the front of the room. Why do these children have eager, happy, excited faces with hands reaching for the sky? Why are they so enthusiastic, so engaged, so motivated? Why are they enjoying themselves so much? Why do they look like they’re—dare I say it—having fun? Because they know the answer! The teacher has asked a question and they all know the answer. Kids love to know the answer. Adults love to know the answer. It is just a good feeling and makes you want to learn more and work harder the next time.
How do you make learning fun? Teach meaningful content and review, review, review—so they all get it, and ask questions. Neither the teacher nor the textbook needs to be clever, funny, original, creative, cutesy, or innovative. In fact, those things usually get in the way. You need to teach meaningful content, presented in a rational, logical way so that students have an ah-ha moment when they actually get it. And then ask questions orally and written so students can demonstrate what they know.
A knowledgeable, enthusiastic, passionate teacher imparting meaningful concrete content makes learning as fun as it’s going to get.
Make sure you read Part One!
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2013 edition.