Opinions among teachers vary when it comes to defining the look of a well-managed classroom. Some teachers have classrooms in which they do most of the talking and students sit quietly in rows. Other teachers do very little talking, but their classroom is a buzz of excited students moving, talking and sharing. In many project-based learning classrooms, students are moving freely throughout the room, talking, and making messes; all with the approval of their teachers. Some classrooms look more like a Starbucks where teachers employ flexible seating.
Which is the better-managed classroom? Based on outward appearances, it is difficult to say. Moreover, what does “managed” even mean? Projects and resources are managed, but are classrooms? Are students?
When we say “classroom management,” what are we really trying to communicate? A classroom full of students that are off-task and disruptive is daunting for any teacher. The best way to avoid that type of situation is a highly engaged classroom. Therefore, instead of discussing management in a classroom, time would be better spent fostering engagement. A few things are as vexing for a teacher as spending a significant amount of time preparing a lesson only to have that lesson be met with student apathy. Avoiding this apathy benefits both teachers and students.
Teachers want to create a classroom environment where students are enthusiastic about their learning, find their learning to be interesting and important, and feel that they can do the learning activities. A highly-engaged classroom leads to better learning outcomes and productive teachers and students. Luckily, research can guide teachers in their attempts to create lessons and activities that foster highly-engaged classrooms.
1. Provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate their competency and success.
If students feel that they cannot be successful with an activity, they will withdraw. People, students included, enjoy solving problems. People do not enjoy working on a problem that seems unattainable. Most people enjoy working on crossword puzzles, not calculus problems. For teachers, this means designing lessons that have clear criteria for success and providing students with immediate feedback on their successes. In our STEM Labs, students are asked to design and plan their projects before they begin coding. This is often accomplished with the writing of pseudocode. This process encourages a dialogue between the teachers and students centered on the criteria of the challenge, thus enabling the teacher to provide students with feedback before misconceptions arise.
2. Provide students with a personal connection to the activity.
Teachers can sometimes feel as if they are always trying to get the attention of their students. There is a good reason for this: At any moment, students are constantly being barraged with information. However, only a small portion of that information gets stored into long-term memory, where it can be retrieved for later use. In order for information to be stored into long-term memory, students need to be actively engaged with the information. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has noted, “Memory is the residue of thought.” How do teachers get students to focus and think about the information that is in the lesson or activity? Encourage students to make a personal connection to the lesson. Does what they are learning seem relevant to them? Can a student see how a lesson or concept can impact their life? When discussing education, we can often get sidetracked into discussions of high-stakes testing, budgets, grading, schedules, etc. These things are all necessary, but they are not sufficient. Are you developing a relationship with your students? Does this relationship then help you facilitate the students making a personal connection to their learning? Sometimes, it can be as easy as making cupcakes.
3. Provide students with authentic connections.
A mistake that is sometimes made when teaching STEM is to emphasize all of the need to fill STEM jobs in the future. Jobs of the future are not an authentic connection for students; activities need to be presented to students in the context that they exist today. Students aren’t interested in learning things that aren’t being used today in real-world applications. Students want to see and experience those experiences that are authentic in practice and they want some ownership and choice in their learning. In each of our STEM Labs, there is a section where learners are provided with examples of how the concepts they are being introduced to apply to their daily lives. In the Medbot STEM Lab, the culminating activity is the AutoMed Challenge. This challenge asks students to navigate a hospital as it delivers medications to patients in several different rooms. Earlier in the MedBot STEM Lab, students learned the impact that robots are having in the medical field:
One of the materials that robots can deliver safely and quickly is medicine. As pharmacists enter prescriptions into their computers, the delivery robots collect the correct type and dosage by scanning the correct bar-codes. The robot then collects and marks medicines, keeping track to ensure that the correct medicine reaches the patient in need. These delivery robots can take labeled medications to nursing stations or even individual patients’ rooms. This is a more efficient method that can speed up the delivery of critical medications to patients, help fill the gap of staff shortages, and keep prescriptions in a safe secure place while in transit.
Educational Robotics is hands-on, minds-on, high engagement.
One way that teachers can accomplish all three facets of an engaged classroom is through educational robotics. Adding educational robotics to your classroom can provide your students with fun, hands-on activities that stimulate their curiosity and encourage collaboration. They will see how their programming functions in real-time and can make updates and changes on the fly. Giving your students an objective to accomplish with their robot ensures a fun learning experience and will expand their critical thinking. During our last webinar, we discussed how powerful this type of learning can be, for both teachers and students. Once they complete their goal, they will remember the experience of success and the joy of accomplishing the task at hand.