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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building a Sense of Urgency in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I am certain you feel the pressure of the testing season soon to be upon us. We want our students to do their very best and we see and feel the urgency (hopefully not panic) that we want them to feel. True learning, which is more than answers on a standardized test, is a naturally urgent process if students are engaged and have a real reason to learn.

Setting the Tone -- and Pace

This sense of urgency emanates from the teacher's attitude, demeanor, spark in their eyes and the bounce in their step. It is the unmistakable message, though unspoken, that what we are learning is important and we have to do it in a hurry! Students take their cues from the teacher's behavior. When I was lackadaisical about what was to be taught, or unprepared for what I was presenting for learning, then the students got the message loud and clear that what they were doing was not important enough to learn. As a side note, I think it is safe to say that this simple weakness was the root of all my discipline problems when I was a teacher.

Teaching is a strenuous activity. It strains the mind and the body. When I came to school tired already, the day seemed to go in slow motion, and getting enthusiastic about teaching verbs conjugations with excitement and vigor was the furthest thing from my mind. So what did I do? I am ashamed to say that I gave the students worksheets to complete. I sat on the edge of my desk and watched the students work and only got up when I saw a student struggling or off task. I knew that this was not best way to teach verb conjugations, but I rationalized that I deserved a break. Needless to say, the students completed the worksheets not because they knew they were going to learn or enjoy it, but because it was easier for them to comply than to complain.

Preparation and Active Learning

In essence, I wasted their time and my time in a fruitless but all too common "keep the students busy" activity. What I should have done, and I what I normally did, was to make a game out of the verb conjugations. One of the student's favorites was the relay race where each row of seats competed to finish the series of sentences for each subject pronoun. The first member of the team would do "yo," the second member would do "tú" and so on until they were all completed. This used every second, and every student was engaged and actively learning.

In terms of not being prepared, I see too many teachers making a last minute run to the copy machine for worksheets (busywork), but perhaps the most alarming trend is that of presenting lessons that are not well thought out, poorly designed for differentiation, and superficial in content. I remember teaching geometry and I was pretty much learning the geometry one step ahead of what I was teaching. This made it difficult to plan engaging and thought provoking lessons because I was not really comfortable with the proofs and there were some I did not understand any better than the students.

There were lessons in which I was entirely dependent on the book for step-by-step instructions and the students would have been better off just reading the chapter themselves. It is hard to be excited about working out of a book.

I can say that one of my best geometry lessons resulted from my enthusiasm about the subject of similar triangles. I had learned about this as a Boy Scout and I knew exactly how to help students understand this lesson. I took them outside and posed the scenario, "How long would the rope have to be to be able to get on top of the high school gym and rescue a child? Oh and by the way, you don't have a tape measure. How could you figure it out using similar triangles and a ruler?" As partners, I helped them measure the lengths of their arms. Raising their arms, they backed up until the ruler in their hand looks the same size as the gym. Then I showed them how to measure the average length of their strides. With this, they paced the distance from the side of the gym to where they stood with the ruler. Now they had an urgent reason to use the concept of similar triangles.

Ready, Set, Go!

I have learned that teachers who have that sense of urgency, do not sit behind their desks while students are supposed to be working. They are roaming the class, inspiring, pushing, and extending the learning of their students all the way to the bell. These urgent teachers have sponges or bell ringers on the board to engage students immediately when the students walk in and taking roll and handing back papers do not take away any learning time. All copies and necessary materials are already prepared for the students before the lesson. All the learning activities are timed and as learning is accomplished, it is celebrated.

Urgency is the greatest protector of time. With a sense of urgency, every second become precious to the students. Dawdling, hum hawing around, and waiting are non-existent in classrooms where urgency is the driving force. Since time is a teacher's greatest resource, creating a sense of urgency is the best tool that a teacher has and is the key to not only increasing learning, but also increasing the students' full engagement.

How do you create a sense of urgency in your classroom? Please share in the comment section below.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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