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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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High-Gear Instructional Strategies: Using the Tools Available

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

A while ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a group of young men in Boy Scout Troop 304. They had spent a few weeks getting prepared for a challenging 17-mile bicycle ride from Castroville, Texas, to Lytle, Texas.

In preparation for this trip, they made repairs to their bicycles during their Scout meetings: They fixed flat tires, oiled the chains, and adjusted the seats and handle bars. When they had their bikes ready, they zoomed around the parking lot of the church where they had their meetings. We even had short races and a shakedown 2-mile ride to make sure the bicycles, and the boys, were OK.

On a beautiful, misty Saturday morning, we headed out on our ride. They chose me to be in the lead. I guess they figured they could keep an eye on the old man more easily if he was up in front. Invariably, after reaching cruising speed, I would notice that the boys were falling behind. Either someone's handlebars were loose, a tire was flat, or a pedal had fallen off.

Finally, it appeared that we had worked out all the kinks and we would be able to ride for a while without stopping. But to my dismay, once again the boys lagged behind. When I asked them what was wrong this time, they said I was going too fast. In my view, we had been going at a modest clip, and it should have been easy for the boys, who have much more energy than I do, to keep up. I was the old man, after all -- and their bicycles were fine. What was the problem? Then a curious thought struck me. I asked them whether they had been shifting to the higher gears. I received only blank looks in response.

Then it hit me: They did not know how to change gears. They had never been on bicycle rides long enough to necessitate changing gears, and so they had never learned how to do it. It only took a few minutes for me to help the boys understand how to shift to higher gears and to downshift when going up hills. The rest of the bicycle trip was a breeze, and in the end, I was the one trying to keep up with the pack.

There's a parallel between this bicycle ride and our situation as educators. We know our students are capable, and their home conditions are no worse than that of students in other communities who are doing much better academically. We certainly have been working hard. Why, then, are we struggling to keep up? My question is, Have we learned how to shift gears?

Just like the boys on their bicycles, we need to understand that it is a question not of working harder, but of working smarter. It should come as no surprise that just as the boys had the right equipment with them all along, so do we.

You probably already realize that Edutopia.org has a lot of tools that can help you kick your teaching into high gear. Engaging your students in more than mere bookwork and worksheet drills and taking them to the application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation levels of Bloom's taxonomy is perhaps the most powerful gear of all.

By adopting more effective teaching strategies, we can change to a high gear and maintain that pace indefinitely. Investigate Edutopia.org's project-learning resources: Everything you wanted to know about project learning can be found on the site's Core Concepts page about project learning. Learn exactly how to do project learning by checking out the site's teacher-education coursework on project learning. You can also look at the features found in the other Core Concepts and Teaching Modules sections.

Interestingly enough, the most important thing that happened on the bicycle trip was not related to shifting gears at all, because after a mile or two, that became second nature to the boys. What truly mattered was that they were able to actually enjoy the trip and have fun with their comrades, just as students engaged in project learning soon forget they are learning as they become involved in their projects. If we are going to teach, we might as well enjoy the ride in high gear.

I am curious about what other "high gears" you have found in your teaching that have helped you enjoy the ride. Please share.

Postscript: Because of this positive experience, the boys later took a bicycle excursion to Corpus Christi for a 25-mile ride along the beach and then a longer ride up to the hill country, which nearly did me in.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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