Monday, April 23, 2012

How to Make Any Lesson Interesting

for Mark

It doesn't matter if you're a teacher, a parent, a child, a neighbor, or a friend: at some point, all of you are going to wind up having to teach someone else how to do something, from potty-training your toddler to teaching your parents how to download apps onto a smart phone. You may be tasked with helping your spouse learn the correct resting position of the toilet seat. It may fall to you to explain to Grandma about Facebook.

Or you may actually be one of those dear souls who explains things to others professionally. That's right: I'm talking about Professional Educators. At best, they spout their accumulated knowledge and insightful thoughts to a group of fascinated students who are eager to catch every pearl of wisdom that drops from their lips. At worst, they function as crowd control.  More generally, teachers invest hours in study and research, then hold forth in front of a distracted audience whose members fall in varying degrees along the Continuum of Ambivalence regarding the topic at hand.

Whether one teaches professionally or not, most people could stand to learn a few tips regarding how to make any lesson interesting. Believe me. I've heard people try to explain very simple procedures to one another, and most of them are not very good at it.  (Bless their hearts.) 

Before I launch into the following points, I should mention that one of the prerequisites to making lessons interesting is to come at each lesson from an unexpected angle. To that end, I will be adapting five concepts from Sun Tzu's The Art of War.1

Enjoy. 

How to Make Any Lesson Interesting:

1. Remember that reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness.  It doesn't matter how much you know about the topic at hand if 1) your target audience doesn't give a flip about what you are trying to teach, or 2) you have taken on the tone of a mindless drone who is more interested in hearing himself sound impressive than in making the concepts clear. Let's be honest: we've all been on both sides of this equation at one time or another. With that in mind, it is incumbent upon you to be sure that your lessons have immediate practical value. Want your dad to understand the navigation app on his smartphone? After explaining to him the basic features and stressing the importance of remembering how to use them, boot him out of the car a few miles from home, leaving him to find his way back on his own. Want your students to understand the inner workings of a freemarket economy? Using value-earned tickets as currency, make them pay rent to keep their desks each week, evicting students who can't pay up. If you want them to understand government subsidies, provide Section 8 benches at the back. If you want them to understand socialism, make them share desks.

2. If you reward your men with spoils, that will make them fight on their own initiative.  Don't get me wrong: I'm not encouraging daily prizes and weekly raffles. What I am encouraging is an  understood system of rewards that has very little to do with tangible goods.  When the students participate well in my lessons, I award them all manner of gold stars and various pins, all of which are purely imaginary and often invented to suit the occasion. I award these verbally much like the teachers from Hogwarts award points to the House teams, with the two differences being that 1) instead of saying, "Very good, five points for Ravenclaw,"2 I say "Excellent observation. You win the Meditation Medallion for the day!" and that 2) instead of my words causing colored stones to fly in and out of a display case in the Great Hall (which our school does not have), I accompany my verbal awards with the physical action of flicking the imaginary pins, points, or medallions through the air at the students, who are then free to pin the invisible award anywhere on their person that they see fit. An endearing number of them actually do this. I also grant the Elbow Touch of Wisdom from time to time, but this is one of the most elusive of the awards.3

3. Maximum force means shifts in accumulated energy and momentum.  Whatever you are tasked with teaching, I've found that if you come at it with a sort of manic enthusiasm bordering on an almost deranged excitement of energy, you will be hard to ignore. You will find that while engaging in this sort of wild verbal and emotional repartee, your quarry will find himself  hard put to look away lest he miss the moment in which you spontaneously combust. But then, just as quickly, you must turn on the edge of a knife, falling down to a soft, almost seductive whisper which carries its greatest emotional impact only after a fit of wildness. You must be very, very careful not to make yourself laugh during this process.

4. Remember that orthodoxy and unorthodoxy are not fixed, but are like a cycle.  The world of education seems to have two types of teachers: those who rigidly follow self-imposed classroom routines from which not even dynamite could hurl them, and those who seem never to have heard the word routine in their lives. The second group's downfall is that they are so unorthodox and scattered in their methods, that although their lessons may be stimulating, invigorating, and refreshing in their unorthodox take, the overall course in general lacks the rhythms and routines that make long-term education effective. The first group's problem is that they cherish their routines so strongly that they do not allow for the dramatic impact that only flashes of unorthodoxy can produce. Case in point: days that I take my students out to the field to experiment with movement in poetic form; days that friends from overseas Skype into my classroom as guest lecturers; moments during which I fall out of the lesson for a few moments in order to perform a few lines from a musical or an opera, then fall right back into the rhythm of the lecture as if nothing untoward has occurred. The very reason that these experiences stand out depends on the overall development of orthodoxy, routine, and rhythm within the classroom.   

5. Victory in war is not repetitious, but adapts itself endlessly. Although a fair amount of repetition is needed for learning, no lesson should be taught the exact same way twice.  The burden of making the lesson fresh and relevant is upon you, the teacher.  Study opposing theories; research corollary arguments; discuss the matter with teachers from other disciplines. Explain the matter to your five-year-old nephew and then have him explain it back to you.  If it is a skill you are teaching rather than a concept, reconnect yourself with the difficulty of initially learning the skill by attempting it with a self-imposed handicap, such as a blindfold. (Unless, of course, you teach Driver's Ed.)

6. Be unfathomable. One of the best keys to keep people listening to you is to upset their notions that you are predictable and that they are able to infer what you are going to say next.  Make it a point to include in each lesson a small point or comment which, though related, is totally unexpected.

Whether you are a professional educator, a lay Sunday School teacher, or one of the millions who find themselves in unofficial teaching capacities, implementing the six strategies above will go a long way to ensuring that you will be able to make any lesson interesting.  

If these steps should fail, you could always try--as a last resort--releasing a small swarm of yellow jackets into the classroom during the lesson. 

That's bound to make any lesson interesting. 

______________________
1. I first read this as a new teacher because someone recommended it as a good foundation for classroom discipline. Indeed, it is. I took this to heart and have attempted to make it mine: "His plans are calmly and deeply hidden, so that no one can figure them out. His regime is fair and orderly, so that no one dares to take him lightly."  
2. Comma splice intentional as a tribute to JKR's seeming fondness for them. *pushes up glasses*
3. The Elbow Touch of Wisdom is exactly what it sounds like: when a student makes an especially keen observation, I walk to him in a stately manner (with great pomp and circumstance), and allow him to touch the tip of his elbow to mine.  For some reason, this seems to make a great impact, especially on those ages twelve to fourteen.

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