For the last 6 months I’ve been trying to write an article called The Effectivist’s Lament. I am a person that has never appreciated idleness or ineffectiveness and am bothered by how often I see it in both adults and students. Nevertheless, during a recent experiment in leisure (a lovely trip to Joshua Tree), I started thinking about idleness and how I need not lump it in with ineffectiveness. When planning projects and activities in the classroom, this manifests in a familiar thought – how I can ensure that all students have a reasonable opportunity to be industrious? For some background on this question before I dig in, I want to provide a few other developing thoughts that may very well be their own articles one day:
- When students give excuses for not working we often ignore or chastise them but I believe that their excuses are often valid and reasonable. Things like “the internet is too slow”, “but Sally was talking to me”, “I’m waiting to use the ______”, “I’m taking a texting break”, “but it’s so pretty outside”, etc. We as adults are equally distracted, distracting, or ineffective when we encounter similar environments. In fact, my friend’s complaints about work over dinner are often the same complaints my students give about my classroom.
- Resources are limited. It’s a fact of life. There will often be a shortage of computers, devices, printer paper, teacher attention, classroom volunteers, etc. Perhaps learning how to cope and sidestep these hurdles is a reasonable learning target that should be EXPLICITLY approached and scaffolded.
Tomorrow I go back to the second week of what my school calls Intersession. It’s a two week long program where students opt into targeted full-time sessions of their choice. Teachers offer everything from golf, poker, and soccer to Shakespearean Theater and astronomy. This year I’m offering what I call Fabrication Technologies which is essentially an introduction to metal working. Students learn to use a metal mill, a metal lathe, and a MIG welder – all professional tools and skills that they could make a career out of. The rub is that I have eighteen students, three machines, and six hours a day with them. This is where teachers start the usual tricks:
- I broke the class into pairs. That brings me down to nine pairs and three machines. Better but still bad.
- I threw in another activity, 3D printing. That brings me down to nine pairs and four machines.
- I created a background activity, 3D modeling (CAD). That brings me down to nine pairs, four machines, and four computer workstations.
- I put together a list of resources and tutorials for them to peruse and explore.
While we could argue pedagogically for the inherent value of each of these tricks, I believe each one of them is a compromise that, in excess, lessens the student experience. Nevertheless, these cumulative activities should provide a reasonable opportunity for students to be industrious as much as possible. And it works …. for a few days. Then – as always happens – some activities reach natural conclusions, interests levels in one activity or another go up or down, and your left with the thing I hate most: a motivated and engaged student whose industriousness is limited by the environment I am providing. In other words, a student waiting in line to use or do something. Student engagement, if I may hack a common quote, is like a butterfly. When pursued it is always just beyond your grasp but, if you sit down quietly, it may alight upon you. And when it does, you damn well better have an environment in which it can flourish!
So how do I ensure that there is an environment in which engagement can best flourish? The go-to answers for me are I need more equipment, I need smaller classes, I need competent volunteers, etc. Sure, these things would all help, regardless of how realistic an ask they are, but I feel like I’m missing something. The next place my mind goes (I argue with myself a lot) is to the larger context.
- Frustrated Me: Teachers throughout history have had this problem. I’m still a newbie. How do the experts dealt with it?
- Wise Me: They create content, activities, and complicated organizational structures that may or may not have anything to do with the content or the learning objectives of the primary activity.
- Frustrated Me: I hate having to over-complicate everything and I hate generating additional work for them that makes both their and my job more difficult.
- Wise Me: That’s reasonable. In fact, as Larry Rosenstock likes to say, “Complex structures beget simple behaviors, simple structures beget complex behaviors.” If you want complex outcomes then keep things simple.
- Frustrated Me: Exactly! Wait – that doesn’t help me though. Maybe this isn’t as typical a problem as I think. My students tend to be working with significant pieces of technology (which means we have less of them) and also working more independently on projects. Maybe this isn’t an old problem that’s already been solved and maybe I’m as close to an expert as one gets.
- Wise Me: That’s scary.
I spent Friday watching some of my students grow idle as their projects matured and they just needed machine time. This weekend the fact hit me that maybe that’s ok, for two reasons. First, self preservation. I am already a stressed out teacher that struggles with work/life balance, spends too much time in analysis paralysis when planning, but does a pretty ok job overall. Maybe I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns for planning. Besides, my kids are still WAY more engaged then most classrooms. Second, student idleness might provide much needed rest and mental space for curiosity and creativity. I ask them to focus for six hours on one thing – that’s crazy. Give the kids a break. Let them rest for a bit doing whatever they need to before they have to refocus.
But then again, maybe this is the first step towards being that disinterested and comfortable teacher that I always scowl about. I digress …
What do YOU think?