We will not make much progress in achieving educational equity until we develop better approaches for dealing with student boredom and resistance. But student access to on-demand entertainment has made it harder than ever for teachers to interest their classes—members of the YouTube generation—in what they are being mandated to cover. The old standbys of telling students they have to know it because it will be on the test, or making it “authentic,” that is, trying to convince students they will need to know it as adults, have little effect on many students. They are not adults and may be rebelling against adult ideas.
I decided to tackle the problems of student boredom and resistance when I supervised student-teachers at the University of Arizona. Most of my student-teachers were placed in low-achieving, high-poverty urban middle and high schools.
Even as my student-teachers grew more skillful in managing classrooms, presenting content, and maintaining discipline, their students remained listless in class. Lots of time continued to be lost to the typical student whining. And, to be honest, I was bored by the lessons myself. The student-teachers, too, were disappointed that their students were not hanging on their every word or exhibiting a thirst for knowledge. They quickly scaled down their expectations of what teaching could and should be. Student apathy and resistance had won out yet again.
Could my student-teachers develop fascinating lessons that would rivet the students of the YouTube generation? I felt the need to intervene—even if only to maintain my sanity over the course of observing 64 lessons a semester. I wanted to see some excitement in teaching and learning for everyone’s sake. So I asked my student-teachers to design one “dramatic” lesson. I provided them with just a two-hour overview of the components of drama and turned them loose to develop dramatic lessons that (1) covered the same content they were scheduled to teach conventionally that period, (2) had new content and was not a review lesson, and (3) maintained the dramatic context throughout, and was used as the basis for teaching the content, not just to intrigue students at the start of the period.
I had no idea what would happen, nor did my student-teachers. They approached this lesson, which was toward the end of the semester, with the same trepidation they had approached the first day of taking over a classroom. Would they lose control of the class? Would their students respond, or would they think the lesson was stupid?
To my delight and amazement, and to theirs, the student-teachers delivered some of the most masterful teaching I have ever witnessed. They broke all the rules. In some cases, the dramatic contexts or storylines they invented called for them to run in and out of the classroom, or teach while hiding under the desk, or teach with their heads on the desk most of the period, or pretend to be crazy. These contexts and storylines were orchestrated, such that students needed to learn the content to help the teacher or themselves resolve some issue of concern, or to help/rescue someone or something.
In most cases, the actual content of these lessons was prosaic, arcane, or complex, and engaging students using conventional instruction would have been problematic. By surprising them with these unorthodox approaches, the teachers made their lessons magical moments in which students had no idea what was going to happen next. And, frankly, neither did I.
We were transfixed, trying to figure out what was going on. My student-teachers never lost control of their classes, because their students were so fascinated and puzzled. For these lessons at least, the student-teachers’ idealized visions of what teaching would be came true. Their students hung on their every word and gesture. When they were asked to do something, they quickly and quietly followed directions. No one asked to go to the bathroom, or complained that they did not know what to do, or said they were missing a pencil. Former passive-resistant learners became initiatory leaders. These lessons were meaningful to students in terms of how they thought (“creative authenticity”), and learning was now driven by passion and emotion.
I call this process of using dramatic technique as the primary method for teaching existing content objectives efficiently “outrageous content instruction” (as opposed to other uses of dramatic technique that generally reinforce or review content already taught, or that develop non-content objectives such as self-expression). The techniques of “outrageous instruction” were refined over time into a series of easily learned principles that were applicable across the content areas, and that transformed the teaching-learning process for even the oldest and most resistant learners. I discuss these principles and lesson planning techniques, with samples of outrageous lessons across the content areas in grades 4-12, in the book Teaching Content Outrageously.
I can share here the following insights drawn from our research: (1) When teachers harness their imaginations to teaching in an “outrageous” fashion, students likewise use imagination to learn—and the most underperforming, jaded students do the best. (2) The learning that occurred was deep and sustained. Classes taught Outrageously did better on the end-of-unit test—even if only their first lesson had been taught dramatically. (3) Even a single Outrageous lesson had major impact in changing how students viewed their teacher, and on their appreciation of the importance of learning content. (4) The rules that work for teaching Outrageous lessons are almost the total opposite of the ones for conventional instruction.
The bottom line is that when teachers taught “outrageously,” there was no boredom or resistance, and the amount and depth of learning increased—for everyone. Teachers were re-energized about the possibilities of their craft and what they could achieve with their students. This was real and powerful reform.
Yet, this reform did not cost any extra money or require elaborate in-service training. This creative approach was as applicable to the current standards-based accountability era as it would be to a progressive era. All this transformation required was that teachers be given the encouragement to tap in to their imagination.
If providing students with a single Outrageous lesson from a single teacher had such effects, what would happen if every teacher in a school taught two such lessons a year? We do not know. But this seems to be a reasonable goal that might revitalize teaching and increase student learning. It could be achieved by simply establishing a schoolwide book club and having leaders encourage teachers to develop and share their periodic Outrageous lessons and experiences. (There is also a blog where teachers can post their successful lessons and share them: outrageousteaching.blogspot.com.)
The use of imagination is the most powerful teaching and learning technology available to us to overcome student boredom and resistance. The images of the mind are far more high-def than the most advanced computers or TVs. By reaching inward into our magnificent minds, we can create new dynamics of practice that are enriching for everyone—while also measurably increasing learning. We do not need to continue to offer students with the most imagination and creativity the least-imaginative approaches to teaching them.
In short, we should no longer think of reform only in terms of reaching outward to try to obtain more resources to provide more services (though that is certainly important). We also must begin to think of reform as reaching inward as individuals to use the most powerful technology available to us, one that is ubiquitous and free: the power of the human imagination. We all can, and must, be outrageous some of the time.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Boredom in Class? Try ‘Outrageous’ Instruction