Teaching Opinion

The Modern Student’s Bill of Rights

By Katie Hanifin — January 21, 2010 4 min read
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When is the last time you found yourself unwittingly on the audience side of a projector, being presented a series of data-laden slides during an otherwise precious hour and a half of your workday? We teachers either politely nod or completely nod off during such training sessions, then move on with our lives as soon as we are freed to do so.

I can’t remember the last time a professional-development session changed the way I did anything. For some, it’s a time to balance the checkbook or respond to a few texts, and there are always others blissfully engaged in conversation with their neighbors, whispering the time away.

These subversive acts are something we teachers have in common with our students. Sure, maybe our displays of disengagement have become more subtle with maturity, but in our classrooms these are the same disrespectful acts that generate impassioned discussions of retirement.

Realistically, we are all students, and for much longer than the K-16 model supposes. We will spend countless hours of our lives in classes, meetings, and training sessions, often patiently disregarding the whole purpose of presentations, however important or mandatory the content.

Let’s stop wasting so much time.

Below, you will find a sort of modern student’s bill of rights—“modern,” not “young,” because, as I’ve said, this has nothing to do with age. It does, however, have a lot to do with better teaching, better learning, and better understanding.

1. Rather than tell us why what you are teaching is important to you, be prepared to share why it’s important to us.

We understand that what you are saying is important to possibly many smart people, but we will not be emotionally invested in any of it until it is connected to our own personal values and interests.

For example, you are not going to prevent a bunch of middle-schoolers from smoking because it may lead to emphysema, blackened lungs, and cancer. They simply don’t value longevity at the age of 12. They are, however, just starting to value their attractiveness to the opposite sex (or a reduction in their current awkwardness). Talk instead about bad breath, phlegm, and yellow teeth.

2. Please don’t read to us what we can clearly read ourselves.

If you have created a PowerPoint document with everything you want to say written in it, print it and use it as your speaking notes—not what you project to the audience. Instead, find or create one meaningful image for the audience that captures the significance of what you are saying. We will listen, while being able to develop our own connections.

3. Try to give us only necessary information.

We don’t always require introductions followed by backgrounds, followed by histories. Give us the content and feel free to leave us something to figure out on our own. Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, we can research independently—we’re actually quite good at it. Give us something about which to be curious.

4. Try to think of what we need to remember and focus on that. Then make it either as fun or meaningful as possible.

If we are bored, we are not learning anything. If the content doesn’t inherently resonate with the audience—Spanish verbs, for example—use analogies, storytelling, and skits to make it come to life.

5. We like to discuss and debate meaningful or controversial things.

Don’t feel as though you have to talk the whole time; we can talk too, and get a lot out of it. Too often, a learning environment is characterized by how quiet the audience is when the instructor is talking. This misconception needs to go away. (I can talk about this misconception at length, or I can open up discussion. Which do you think would be more eventful?)

6. If something is important, make it stand out in our memory.

We remember jingles, commercials, skits, jokes, stories, and all sorts of other snippets of information—oftentimes even years later. Maybe you despise the marketing culture in which we live, but if I were to sing, “Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece …” you’d probably be able to finish it. (Disclaimer: unless you were born in the ’90s.) Marketers know how to get things stuck in our heads without making us study or take tests.

7. Use the time that is really needed, rather than allotted.

It is no secret that the most popular professor on campus is the one who finishes early. If you don’t need two hours, don’t use it—quality over quantity.

8. Base complicated concepts on something with which we’re already familiar.

A clear and interesting analogy is worth more than a lengthy chapter. Look at a political cartoon.

9. Show us a few big connections, rather than sharing lots of small facts.

Small facts are no longer the intellectual domain of the person at the front of the room. We can access more information in 10 seconds via the Internet than an expert could accumulate in a lifetime. Often this technology is sitting, prohibited, in our pockets.

Teach us the connection between the bat’s ability to hover in midair and the Jetsons-like implications this has on the future of real estate, property laws, and transportation. (Disclaimer: The Jetsons were a television cartoon family of the future, for those of you born in the ’90s.)

10. Listening, reading, and writing are neither active nor interactive (just easier to assign and control).

We are social creatures who get a lot out of games and challenges. Make it interpersonal, rather than trying to keep us still and quiet. We can listen, read, and write on our own.

I believe it was Plato who said something to the effect that “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Who’s going to argue with that? (Disclaimer: I did not misspell Play-Doh, if you were born in the ’90s.)

There’s more, but I think I’ll stop. You’re free to go.

Students, you have a right to not remain silent—what do you think?

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Modern Student’s Bill of Rights


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