The Need to Breathe: How to Develop Urgency in the Classroom | Edutopia
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The Need to Breathe: How to Develop Urgency in the Classroom

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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As I stated in my last submission, what a teacher believes is the reality of his instruction. Everything you do as a teacher stems from what you value most. Students notice this, but have you noticed how much of an influence you, as a teacher, have on the way students feel in your classroom?

We've all had those days when we are on fire, the students are excited, and everything seems to happen just the way we planned. Why can't we have those days every day? There are a multitude of reasons, but most of them are either related to or directly linked with what we as teachers do. Yes, there are always student issues, but we can anticipate those and compensate for them. So, what feeling do you want your students to get when they come into your classroom? May I suggest a sense of urgency (but not the restroom kind)?

You may have heard the story about the would-be student of a great teacher: The student pressed the teacher to tell him what he must do to gain great knowledge. After much badgering, the teacher finally told the pupil to meet him at the beach the next morning so he could answer his question.

The next day, they met on the beach. The teacher walked out into the water and motioned for the student to follow. When the student got close, the teacher grabbed him and pushed his head underwater, holding it there for a while. The student struggled, first because of his surprise and then because he needed air. Finally the teacher let the student up, gasping for breath. The teacher asked the student, "While you were underwater, what did you want more than anything else?" "Breath!" came the ragged reply. The teacher explained: "If you want great knowledge, then you must want it as badly as you wanted to breathe."

Can you imagine getting our students to feel that level of urgency? We can, if we establish a learning environment that promotes it. The very first factor is that we have to be on fire before we will kindle any fire in our students. We set the mood with our expressions, the way we walk, and the tone of our voice. We have to ask ourselves each class, "Am I urgent enough to inspire the students extrinsically?"

The kind of urgency we want in our students is intrinsic to the learning activity itself. Drawing out this powerful urgency means that our learning tasks have to be important and must require immediate attention. First, we must provide a reason to learn (which is analogous to sticking the student's head underwater). Second, we have to establish a need in our students to learn now (like a person whose head is underwater and needs to breathe). Here are my ideas for learning systems that promote urgency:

Provide a reason to learn -- make it relevant:

  • Establish realistic products the students will create as a result of the desired learning.
  • Bring in an expert who can give the students real-life problems they need to solve using the desired knowledge.
  • Allow students to choose among different methods, not just levels of difficulty or depth. (Read about inquiry-based learning to find out more.)
  • Give students an opportunity to present or publish their work outside of class.
  • Make connections with the other subjects the students are learning about.

In order for learning activities to be most effective, you have to design them to be part of a learning system in which all the parts work together. Ultimately, if the teacher's behavior demonstrates a sense of urgency, students' behavior will most likely follow suit. Urgency is the spark of energy students need to engage in the difficult task of acquiring knowledge and skills. If applied correctly, the process of teaching and learning is efficient and fun. So, when students enter your classroom, you want them to want to feel a sense of urgency. They need to want to learn what you have prepared as badly as they want to breathe.

You can probably come up with a much longer list of things a teacher can do to create a sense of urgency in the classroom. How do you establish urgency -- the need to learn important things right away -- in your classroom?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mike's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the thinking behind this blog. I'm curious as to what kind of resources exist that provide contact information for "experts" in different fields.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that the Spiral Notebook will certainly attract "experts" in education that are willing to share their expertise. Is that what you were referring to?

Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


The light just went on. I was referring to local business people, parents of students and acquaintances that can be coerced into coming to school to talk about how they use what the students are learning in their chosen profession. Our school district is starting a speaker's bureau of such folk. We also have a beginning Business/ Education Advisory Council. So to answer your questions, it takes a creative teacher or administrator who is willing to find experts to reach out to the community, starting with their own students' parents.

There are resources such as Ford PAS that promote bringing experts into the classroom.

The Ford Motor company sponsored a curriculum to unify business, science and engineering into one. And it is not all about Ford. It is a five semester series that prepares students for the "real world" through inquiry-based instruction and frequent guest speakers and field trips. Best of all, the curriculum and support they offer are free. The books cost a little bit if you want to buy them, but once you sign up, you can download them for free. It is a complete system which includes summer training, online support, creations of BEAC's and everything you need to make it work. They even will help you target the aligned areas showing that this program will support your standardized test preparation.

Ben Johnson

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to add that not only do the students need to feel that level of urgency when it comes to their education But, teachers need it also. When the teacher loses that level of direness, it is time for him to go elsewhere and pursue a new profession.

The need for education is two-sided and we cannot overlook the fact that there are many over-tired, over-exhausted and over-used teachers out there who are no longer 'in it' for the right reasons.

A student will only feel this urgency once he receives the corresponding stimulus from his teacher.

Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with anonymous that some teachers are only going through the motions. Their apathy directly translates to increased student apathy. As a teacher of high school students who are medically challenged, I find it takes more effort to convince them that what I am presenting to them in the classroom (via the internet) has urgency in their lives.
I teach science which offers endless opportunities to discuss unusual and/or controversial topics. Nothing involves students more that allowing them to express opinions on subjects where there is wide disagreement. It also brings urgency because I remind them that these real world situations determine their future.
Inquiry based learning is a strong focus in science instruction in our district. My only caution is that some teachers never connect that fun experimentation to the actual knowledge the students gained. Gifted students may have already made that leap but not all students have mastered the extending of their results to new knowledge they have acquired. I find bringing students together to discuss their findings allows them to cooperatively make that step.
I think the idea of involving the community by bringing in "experts" in their fields is a wonderful idea. As we build relationships between schools and business, everyone benefits.

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