As my own kids headed back to school recently after a long summer holiday, I have been reminded of the importance—and the challenge—of making a new school term engaging from the beginning. Here are four things I believe can help beat the back-to-school blahs and start the term off with a bang:
For students of all ages, school breaks are a time to learn whatever is interesting to them. Whether it be building a new world from scratch in Minecraft, or learning to be a lifeguard, or lying in a hammock reading fiction, holidays afford the time to satisfy curiosity. Shouldn’t school do the same? To the greatest extent possible, pick a first unit that will surprise and delight students and give them agency in their learning. If you’re teaching number patterns, do it using symmetries and patterns in nature. If you’re teaching computing, do it in the context of solving a real-world problem, like building a simulation of a base camp that would enable humans to survive on Mars, or designing a refugee camp that can adequately meet the needs of refugees fleeing war and famine. Alice from Carnegie Mellon is a great 3-D animation tool for projects like this.
Nothing kills a love of learning faster than sitting through two weeks of placement tests. Where it’s possible to level-set students using projects or portfolios or even their GPAs, skip the test and do that. Though more work is needed, research is showing that the efficacy of using placement tests to assign students to college math classes or assess college readiness is very limited. In my own children, I see firsthand the frustration that can come with the overuse of adaptive assessments for placement: When a student quickly reaches a level where everything is unfamiliar and then continues to be asked about the unfamiliar without teaching interventions, it can both undermine student confidence and turn the child off to school.
In large part, learning that goes on during school breaks is self-directed and hands-on. Continue the momentum of developing students into lifelong learners by immediately making available resources for exploration, self-study, and hands-on labs that enable students to learn by doing. This can be especially effective for exposing students to emerging technologies, where full curriculum resources may not yet be available and the technologies may still be new to you. I particularly like the data science labs in the new Oracle Academy Education Bytes for higher education, which leverage industry-leading technologies to teach generally applicable computing concepts. Being hands-on with new technologies can help make abstract concepts approachable and spark student interest.
Realistically, not everything students need to learn will inspire their passions or ignite their excitement. Other content, even if it’s part of a topic students are interested in, is just difficult and requires focused, committed study. We can still keep students engaged by helping them see how that content is used in or important to their worlds. Sometimes this can be done by starting with the application of the concept and working backward, like starting with airplanes in flight to teach Euler equations. Other times, hearing from role models about how they have used the educational content at hand can provide motivation. Ted Talks provide interesting and challenging content in a variety of areas, and more specialized videos, like the new Oracle Innovate: Lessons from Entrepreneurs series, can provide sustained content around a specific theme. Some videos offer discussion guides to support flipped classrooms, where students spend class time engaged in feedback and conversation.Of course, the most important component to beating back-to-school blahs is a passionate, engaged educator. And that kind of educator, armed with great resources and techniques, is a sure way to keep students excited about school and inspired to learn.