Different methods can reach many students who appear to be failures, and that's what engaging classroom teaching is all about.
Take the teenagers in teacher Mark Thackeray’s class in London, who won’t stop misbehaving. His class is dominated by the students’ childish antics, which frequently disrupt Thackeray’s lessons and disrespect him and each other. The students have no interest in learning or behaving.
One day, the students go too far. They burn a used tampon in a fireplace. Thackeray loses his temper. He has been told by colleagues that the same students’ behavior spurred his predecessor to resign. It appears he might too, but he decides instead to dramatically change his teaching methods.
For the rest of the school year, the students decided what was discussed in class. They chose to discuss topics like how to prepare for life after they leave high school rather than academic subjects. Learning how to get a job and make money was more important to them than how to prepare for college, so that’s what Thackeray’s lessons became about.
His strategy worked—by the end of the academic year, the students were well-behaved, responsible enough to succeed at post-school entry-level jobs, and respectful toward their teacher and other adults.
If you’re a movie fan, you might recognize the above story. It’s from the 1967 movie To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier as Thackeray. The movie is fictional and is an imperfect analogy for teachers who are trying to decide whether to change their approach to teaching.
As a teacher, you want your students to learn about the subject you’re teaching.
You probably also want them to improve their critical thinking skills enough to succeed in college. Most of the students in this movie were thrown out of other schools, and college was never an issue.
It's interesting to note that British schools like the one in the movie have long had the same problems as American schools in missing the potential of students who later became very successful. Winston Churchill’s teachers wrote the future prime minister was a troublemaker with “no ambition” who was negligent and “constantly late.” John Lennon’s teachers wrote that he was “hopeless,” a “clown,” and “certainly on the road to failure.”
It’s possible that Churchill and Lennon didn’t respond to traditional teaching, but overcame their early struggles because they were geniuses.
It’s also possible that millions of adults who complained that school was boring but weren’t geniuses would have had more successful lives if they had been exposed to more engaging classroom teaching methods when they were students.
And it's there that To Sir, With Love does convey an important point—innovative teaching can transform students.
As a teacher, you know that traditional teaching methods work with some students but have probably become less effective in recent years because of changes in society.
You want to be a different kind of teacher, someone who helps students improve their critical thinking skills so they are more apt to succeed in your class, in college, and in life.
If you want to accomplish more engaging classroom teaching, consider different teaching methods such as the ones below.
1. Formulate Different Rules
You should still go over the classroom rules in your first class before you begin teaching. However, the rules should not be authoritative commands from you to the students.
Discussing the rules of the class and letting the students have a say in them is more effective than setting mandates.
Students are more apt to behave if they feel they have ownership in the rules.
2. Create a Different Relationship
The teacher's role in achieving more engaging classroom teaching has moved to being classroom’s facilitator of learning, not its lecturer. Don’t just talk about History or Science while students struggle to pay attention; their critical thinking skills will improve if they’re more active learners.
Encourage them to talk about the day’s topic, ask questions about its importance, challenge you, and perhaps talk about something that’s relevant to the topic and that is interesting to them, but was not on your agenda.
3. Ask Different Kinds of Questions
Why have teachers asked simple factual questions in class for decades? “Who assassinated Abraham Lincoln?” might help a teacher learn who did their homework, but memorizing information so simple questions can be answered doesn’t improve critical thinking.
"Why" is instantly a better questioning practice, as is asking follow-up questions that make the topic more interesting.
The questions should get students to think critically about people’s behaviour and how similar behaviour affects the world of 2017.
4. Get Students to Develop Different Skills
Why are so many assignments something like “read pages 50 to 60?” Everyone shouldn’t have the same assignment.
A better approach is to work on students’ critical thinking skills by giving them different assignments based on what skills they need to improve.
Assign some students to write about one topic and others to prepare an oral presentation on a different topic.
5. Give Students Different Kinds of Assignments
Assigning everyone to analyze Shakespeare’s sensational works might not improve students’ critical thinking if their boredom spurs lousy work. How about having students analyze via writing and speaking books and articles they are interested in? A sports biography a student is interested in might be trash as literature, but the goal is to improve a student’s critical thinking by, among other things, improving his or her ability to make arguments in a logical, organized, and academically sophisticated way.
6. Get Different Students to Work Together
Assigning more group projects is important because people work together on projects in the “real world.” Having friends work together isn’t unimportant, but it’s also crucial to help students improve their problem-solving skills by assigning them to work with students with different personalities and abilities. Explaining to students that successful joint efforts are a building block to helping them work with others on future work assignments is important.
Will making these changes affect your students as much as the changes Thackeray made affected the students in his class? Hopefully, your changes will have that much of a long-term effect.
Pro-tip: To get things moving quickly, give yourself a jump-start with our Critical Thinking Companion, it will help you implement and assess critical thinking quickly