With the new Batman movie coming out I felt the need to blog about my thoughts on critical thinking and engaging students in class. My son just turned nine and for his birthday he received Lego Batman 2. With the weather being so unbearably hot and the game being so new, he has spent a lot of time playing this game. I have to admit I was part of the Super Mario generation so I have a soft spot for video games. That being said I would like him to be more active than he is. But before I kicked him off I sat down and watched him play.
As I watched, my eyes opened to the possibilities that were in front of me. This was not a game about going from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. It required a lot of thinking about how to get out of each level. I watched him struggle to figure out what to do next as he navigated Batman around the board. He had to break and build things with the legos on each board and then figure out how to use them to get to the next level. I was impressed with the level of sophistication that the game provided. It wasn't just lower level thinking, it required analysis of the setting, predication of what was to come, synthesis of the items to build and then do something with, and evaluation of situation.
I was mesmerized as this game hit at the higher or critical thinking levels that I want my students to have. He was definitely not a passive, but an active learner. He was applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. Some of the levels took him a lot of time to figure out what to do. In many cases he failed again, and again, and again, yet undaunted he kept trying. All I could think about was how can I bottle this for my class, what will be my lego batman?
Here are a few quick observations:
First, contrary to popular belief, students aren't quitters. Most of our students are gamers. They fail again, and again, and again, yet keep trying to power up or pass a level. Might be the complete opposite of quitting. So why do some of them seem to quit in class? I would argue that they don't see the need to "power up" or "pass the level" in our class. We need to do a better job helping them see why they should be engaged, what the benefits are, and how to do it. This doesn't mean we need to put on a show. Let's not mistake entertainment for engagement. I would contend more guided student choice with well defined and outlined goals will help alleviate this. It is important to remember these kids will spend hours trying to pass a level on a video game that actually gives them nothing in real life. Just think if they catch the attitude of learning and gain skills and see the point of succeeding in class/school/life. They are not lazy or quitters, they just need direction and motivation to become engaged. Remember in words of David McCullough, "Attitudes aren't taught they're caught."
Second, we spoon feed our students too much. I had a professor at the U, George Henry, who I will forever be grateful to for many reasons, one such was patience in getting students to think. He would ask questions and wait. And wait. And wait some more. It could get uncomfortable and awkward. We have trained students to wait for us to answer our own questions. They don't have to think, we do it for them. I would say this is one of the deadly sins of teaching. My advice is to never let them off the hook. Wait as long as necessary for them to answer. It will be hard at first. You have to train yourself as much as your students. Once they know they have to think and supply the answers they will. I promise.
Thirdly, show them the big picture. Sure its important to teach our content, but we must also teach skills. If students understand there is a reason, and a good one, they will be much more willing to get involved. Believe me they know when you mailed in a lesson, just like you do. They can sniff busy work a mile a way. Show them the big picture first and then how each lesson is a part of that. They want to believe in you.
"Confidence sells--people believe in those who believe in themselves. No one wants to be stuck in a room with other people who feel like they don't belong there. Stop wondering if you are good enough. Know you are, and start acting like it."--Simon Black
Fourth, provide meaningful lessons and authentic assessment. Inquiry is one of the latest buzzwords in education. Inherent in inquiry is passion. It is the driving force to figure out why. Everyone has passion for something, though sometimes it seems buried deep down. We need to unleash that passion. I believe it starts with inquiry coupled with meaningful activities. Why not let them make a few choices in what they do? If you know that they will be much more engaged, understand the material better,go from passive to active learner, and then go from lower levels to higher levels of thinking, why wouldn't you do it? Have them make a movie, a photostory, a prezi, or better yet a website. You can have smaller assignments along the way to build their content knowledge and skills and then culminate with a mind blowing final project. Guaranteed your students won't ever ask again why they have to do a particular activity, because they chose to do it.
Finally, its okay to get a bit messy with this. As I watched my son fail again, and again, I realized he didn't have to get it right the first time. That goes not only for the students, but you too. We may stumble along the way, but that's okay, students may fall, that's okay too. They will get back up and so will you. Since this is about Batman it seems fitting to add this in from Batman Begins. "Why do we fall down Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." Not sure if that isn't the most valuable lesson we can teach anyhow. But not only for them, we too need that reminder as well.