Student Engagement

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

February 27, 2008

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?

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