George Lucas Educational Foundation
A bored student sleeps at her desk.
Student Engagement

Burn Your Podium (and Other Hacks)

Put an end to sleeping in your classroom.
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It has always seemed to me that if the appropriate groundwork were responsibly laid, if the students were appropriately primed and invested in a lesson, the learning would come easy. It is with that in mind that I’d like to present the following hacks for increasing student engagement.

Burn Your Podium

While walking down the hall during my prep one day, I noticed a student asleep at his desk in a classroom and several others hunched in full-blown daydream position. As I walked past the door, I noticed the teacher was emphatically lecturing behind a podium.

The next classroom I walked past was abuzz—students were working in small groups, apparently engaged in an active discussion, while the teacher moved about the room. No sleeping bodies.

The third classroom resembled the first: a booming voice peeling back the layers of U.S. history for 20 drowsy kiddos. Two heads on desks.

This piqued my interest. What do my colleagues see when they walk past my classroom? How many of my colleagues are suffering from podiumism? What’s the correlation between sleeping students and lecturing teachers?

It didn’t take more than two passes down two long hallways to confirm the correlation—but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.

The hack? Burn your podiums and scatter the ashes! Or simply rely on the student-centered strategies that we know foster discussion and heighten active engagement:

  • Ask your students to collaborate with their peers in small groups. Groups of three to four encourage total participation—that is, they give every student a chance to speak, to share their ideas with their peers, and to contribute to the work.
  • Explore innovative discussion structures such as Socratic circles. Ask students to sit in two concentric circles—an inner circle that will discuss a topic, and an outer circle that will (a) assess and provide feedback for the inner circle, (b) provide content and questions to fuel the inner circle’s discussion, (c) hold a simultaneous discussion in a digital backchannel or chat room, and/or (d) provide real-time fact-checking. Students may squirm at first without your voice to guide their discussion, but I’ve yet to experience a Socratic circle that hasn’t taken a profound turn in 10 minutes or less.
  • Learning stations are a powerful way to transform content that would otherwise be delivered to students from behind a podium. Begin by considering which chunks of content are essential. Trace those chunks back to authentic sources—interviews, maps, hands-on experiments, film clips, nonfiction articles, and so on. Let each station provide students with truly immersive opportunities that showcase the thing you’re inspiring them to be passionate about.

Always Choose Choice

Choice is a major player in the psychology of human motivation, and even a little bit goes a very long way. Consider framing assignments in creative ways to bring choice into the equation: Read any two books from list X or one book from list Y; solve all of the even or all of the odd problems for homework; write a three-page narrative or create a script for a five-minute film.

Integrate Popular Culture

Popular songs, advertisements, artists, and television series have enormous power when harnessed for educational purposes. Why? Because a majority of your students will hold a strong prior interest in the pieces of popular culture you can now consider part of your pedagogical repertoire.

A number of implementations of this come to mind: using Angry Birds to teach physics, Super Bowl commercials to teach Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, and pop lyrics to teach close reading. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the teachers who are dreaming up these lessons. What would Beyoncé and Daisy Buchanan discuss over mint juleps? Or lemonade?

The skills students glean when working with popular culture seem effortlessly attained and are immediately applicable to more rigorous, complex, and real-world contexts.

Make Authenticity Your Compass

Authenticity is at the heart of our effective instructional strategies, including the highest levels of project-based learning (PBL). Imagine students who work collaboratively to solve problems pertinent to their community, who rally support and organize fundraisers to champion a cause they truly believe in, who pour more hours into a presentation they’re making to the principal to demonstrate the educational benefits of a field trip than they ever would have spent on a mere homework assignment.

When crafting your next unit, whether it be an overarching implementation of PBL or a short lesson on probability, look to the community, to the school, and to student interests for authentic problems that will sustain engagement and drive participation.

Turn Work Into Play

Even the simplest games, those that teach rote facts and skills and are styled after Jeopardy!, can work wonders with student engagement.

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, consider gamifying your entire classroom (e.g., swapping out grades for points, or applying the game principles that James Paul Gee outlines in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy) or designing game-based units of study (e.g., creating simulations that immerse your students in the content they’re studying).

When colleagues pass by your door, give them something to think about for their classes. But don’t actually burn your podium, please.

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Colin Taper's picture

All great insights! I wonder about student discussion in small groups. What are some tools and/or best practices to ensure that equal voice and equal time are allotted to each student? Also, how does an instructor verify the extent to which each member has contributed?

Rahbin Shyne, JD, NBCT's picture
Rahbin Shyne, JD, NBCT

Two of my favorite techniques for ensuring that all students participate:
1. I assign each a separate work product. With three students, have one illustrate, one summarize and the other provide an original example or application of the concept. They have to talk with each other. From experience, I'll add that this works best when given just enough time for all to finish. Too much time can lead to a shy or less motivated student to wait for the others to step in.
2. After assigning work that requires collaboration, I have each student complete the post-discussion assignment. Walking around with four markers. For example, in group there's a red, a blue, a green and a yellow. I choose one color randomly and everyone gets the grade of that person.
The first option works best with new ideas. The second works best with culminating assignments.


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