A humorous and thought-provoking look at why teachers should focus on sparking student interest
So, it’s Wednesday afternoon around 4pm. The students are tired and wired on break-time sugar, and I’m starting to flag. I’m trying to explain the importance of components when calculating vectors and a hand pops up at the back of the room. I peer myopically at the interruption and foolishly nod. My first mistake.
‘Why do we need to know this? I want to be a lawyer.’
A fair point, I concede in my head, but my mind races to think of a reasonable answer that isn’t ‘to pass your exams’. I weigh up discussing the advantage of bullet trajectories in a criminal case, but then I remember he wants to be a contract lawyer because that’s where the money is.
Doodles or science?
‘So you can pass your exams,’ I say, and that was my second mistake. I could almost watch the interest walk out the door. The student watches me for a moment before dismissing me and everything I stand for. Then he nods to himself, picks up a pencil and proceeds to doodle an alien being shot by a futuristic cannon over his carefully noted equations. In hindsight, I should have gone for the bullet trajectories. If the student switched off mid-explanation, at least a reasonable drawing of a parabola would have killed the alien.
In hindsight, I can see how we ended up there. The student’s question, for all of its perceived impertinence, was an important one. He didn’t say he didn’t need to know this. He asked why. He gave me an opening, and I confirmed his fears that his time was being wasted. At that point, a doodle was more important than science.
Students, like teachers, use time as currency. It is a precious and finite resource, so students want to spend it wisely. Teachers then become sellers, trading ideas for time and attention. If the content is worthwhile, the student will trade their time and engage with the lesson. If the content has no perceived worth, the student will remain disengaged, and the output will be entirely funded by external motivators, like the threat of a detention. Certainly the student will struggle to connect with the knowledge on offer and the odds of retention will drop drastically. On the other hand, persuade the student that the knowledge is of value to them, and they will do their best to understand and engage. They may even ask questions.
Selling knowledge is not particularly different from selling a product, and there are some common tips that all sellers use. Firstly, understand that you are, first and foremost, selling yourself. Your personality will drive the sale. The students don’t just need to like you, they need to admire you, be caught up by your passion for science or whatever subject you are trumpeting, and you should trumpet it loudly. In the sciences, we have a particular advantage: what we do is spectacular, whether it is a magnesium and copper oxide displacement, or shooting a tin monkey from a tree. Of all the subjects, our passion can be displayed with childish glee in any number of ways, and that passion is admirable, worthy of attention and therefore sellable.
Secondly, listen to the student. Understand their needs and shape your product to meet that desire. A few minutes of chat about their perceived futures can be the basis of a string of carefully themed lessons, bespoke to the student. This personal touch is incredibly powerful, and will help maintain interest on that dreary Wednesday afternoon. Again, the sciences have the advantage. Very little in life isn’t affected by our subject and, with a little effort and research, you could find the gap needed to penetrate students’ disinterest. In the classroom, the teacher shapes the knowledge as an idea to be sampled and then bought by carefully planning the delivery or pitch of the content. The structure of a lesson, the learning curve and the choice of real-life applications all go towards enhancing the attraction of the knowledge as an entity worth students’ time.
Relatedly, ask the student questions. For one, it allows you to figure out more about the student, their understanding, their interest level and what they perceive to be important. Just as important is the realisation that students love to talk about themselves (as we all do), so give them the opportunity. When you show genuine interest, the student buys into you as a person, and is much more likely to purchase what you are selling. This is particularly apparent when you realise that, as a teacher, you have competition: other subjects. If the other teacher and their subject are perceived to have more worth, students will invest more time and energy in them, at the detriment of achievement in your subject. On the other hand, persuade the student that what you have is the best product of all, and the would-be lawyer might begin to doubt his venal career path and decide to be the next Franklin.
So back to the lawyer-in-waiting …
What I should have said if I really wanted to sell vectors is, ‘How do you think it applies? Give me three reasons by the next lesson. Here’s a hint, think about testimony.’
But you know what? It was Wednesday afternoon at 4pm and I was also tired. Sue me.