What do you do when students just don’t seem that interested in a subject, no matter how hard you try to draw them in?
I recently had an interesting discussion about that question with teachers on the Deeper Learning MOOC. And it got me thinking back on all the times that I’ve sat down with students to draw them out on a subject . . . and felt like I had failed.
In researching the book Fires in the Mind, for What Kids Can Do, hundreds of youth around the country met with me to investigate the question “What does it take to get really good at something?” Typically, I’d begin our small-group sessions by asking the kids to describe something they considered themselves already very good at.
I began to see how thoroughly we’ve trained our students to wrap up answers neatly in a complete sentence. “What I am very good at is . . .” they would begin, and then finish with a word or two. “Math.” “Basketball.” “Drawing.”
“Tell me more,” I would say. And wait, while they racked their brains for the “right answer.”
Sometimes I would have to prompt their memories. (“Was it always that way for you?” “Did you ever try to teach someone how to do that?” “What’s hard in getting the hang of it?”) Sooner or later, they got the message: I was actually really interested in the details of their experience.
Then, the grammar of their explanations began to relax and come alive. They knew what they were talking about. They engaged with their subject, revealed how they thought about it, entered into a discourse with others about it, qualified their original views.
Even so, at least one student in any group would shrug and turn away as if the question had no interest. That was OK with me—perhaps it felt too risky to answer, for that person in that moment. After a bit, I’d try another way in, maybe asking their opinion on something that someone else had said. Students tend to appreciate the respect we show toward how they see things differently: “Can you tell me more . . . ?”
“No one can understand anything if it isn’t connected in some way to something they already know,” the cognitive scientist James E. Zull points out in his wonderful book The Art of Changing the Brain. “Whatever their experience, that is where they start.”
In my case, I was helping students to explore the science behind their own learning process. But whatever our subject—the solar system, the French and Indian War, the Pythagorean theorem, or Moby Dick—it’s worth the time it takes to find out more about where kids are coming from. (Tip: start the conversation with a concrete example. One teacher I know starts a unit on early America by asking, “Is it okay to take land if no one is using it?”)
Their skills, their needs, their partial ideas, their misunderstandings—all this essential information that we need for teaching effectively will come out, if we stay away from “safe” right-or-wrong answers and instead give students a safe way to “Tell me more . . .”
Once they begin to reveal their existing connections, they will stop tuning out. They have something real to say—and we can build on that.
“Tell me more . . .” As we make it a part of our teaching, sooner or later we’ll hear our students say those words themselves. It’s a legacy that can guide a lifetime of intellectual and emotional engagement.
Kathleen Cushman’s new multimedia book The Motivation Equation can be read free on any web browser, the iPad, and the iPhone.