Thursday, August 27, 2009

There are three ways all educators can teach “the spark”

by Richard L. Weaver II

I spent my entire 30-year professional career teaching and writing about “the spark.” By “the spark,” I am referring to the way educators have for engaging, exciting, and involving students in the process of learning. Although I had a few educators who taught “the spark” during my own educational career, none ever compared with the efforts I made. This may sound like bragging; however, it is simply a factual statement that I want to support in this essay.

There are three ways all educators have for teaching “the spark.” The first and most obvious way is for teachers to reveal enthusiasm and vitality in their own teaching. The second way is to use teaching techniques (including the use of activities and exercises) that involve students in the process. The third, and final, way is to adopt textbooks or use readings that appeal directly to students’ wants, needs, and interests.

Revealing enthusiasm and vitality is essential if teachers are to engage students. I ran a brief, informal study in a course that enrolled just over 300 students. I asked students an either/or question. Given a choice, would you rather have a teacher who knew his or her subject very well, but had a rather dull teaching style, or would you rather have a teacher who did not know his or her subject very well, but taught the material using a highly animated, dynamic teaching style? There was no contest. Students would rather have teachers who are animated and dynamic — enthusiasm and energy was the overwhelming winner.

As a caveat to what I discovered in my informal study above, it is important to note that often students cannot tell the difference between those teachers who know their subjects well and those who do not. Most students would likely prefer an energetic teaching style whatever the content and would probably claim teachers who demonstrate enthusiasm in the classroom know their material very well.

This informal study reveals two things. First, the delivery of ideas (for students) often is more important in conveying ideas, than the ideas themselves. Second, if teachers want to be considered competent (by students) in the classroom, the best and most effective way to influence them is likely to be connecting directly with them in a passionate and earnest manner.

What are delivery elements that convey passion and enthusiasm? Variety is the key. Teachers’ voices must never be dull and monotonous, rather they should be interesting, compelling, and full of life. Facial expressions must accompany interesting voices by revealing teachers’ feelings and emotions. A flat, expressionless voice, accompanied by an inexpressive, blank (vacant), or wooden face will surely have negative effects on students just as ineffective gestures and a lack of body movement.

On a college level there must be a difference between the heavy, academic researcher and those individuals who have chosen specifically to teach at the undergraduate level, and there must be ways for colleges and universities to award good teachers in a way that is fair and equitable when compared with rewards given to those who engage primarily in academic research.

A second important way teachers have for teaching “the spark” is to include significant, interesting, and relevant exercises and activities into their classrooms. I have published many articles that specifically address this issue. Some of the titles include: “Entertainment in the Classroom: Captivating Students Without Sacrificing Standards,” “Peer Evaluation,” “Role Playing,” “Mental Aerobics: Directed Discussion,” “Imaging As An Aid in Understanding,” “The Interactive Lecture,” “The Small Group in Large Classes,” “The Creative-Innovative-In-Depth-Dyadic-Encounter,” “Day One/The Wasted Day,” “Student-Centered Teaching,” “The Use of Exercises and Games,” “A Discussion-Oriented Examination Technique,” and “Introductory Group Exercises for Public Speaking.”

One of the most successful techniques I used everyday in my interpersonal-communication lecture course, with over 300 students per semester, I called “the half-sheet response.” I used it to get feedback from my students, to take attendance, to give quizzes, to take surveys, and to obtain relevant and interesting jokes and stories. These daily responses kept me, as the lecturer, in close touch with my students. They were engaging, interesting, relevant, and fun, and students looked forward to my connection with them, but not only that, they looked forward to my use of their comments as I adapted and adjusted to their insights and observations.

Anytime teachers can incorporate relevant and important activities and exercises into their curriculum they should seriously consider doing so. This may include field trips, excursions away from brick-and-mortar structures, and different formats for conveying information. Why? To help hold student attention. To offer variety and interest. To more directly engage them in the learning process. And, perhaps most important, to teach a valuable lesson, point, or idea in a unique and memorable manner.

The third way teachers have for teaching “the spark” is to adopt textbooks or other reading material that clearly and specifically appeal to students. In my over thirty textbooks (including all editions), and in over thirty years of writing them, one of my consistent and unchanging approaches is to make certain that readers will enjoy reading what I write. If they do not, there is little purpose in my writing and, what’s more, in having my colleagues adopt them. Looking back over the textbooks I was assigned to read throughout my educational career, I can remember only one of them (the one I used in my basic public-speaking course!), and not one of the textbooks I used throughout my entire career (19 years) could be considered memorable because of its readability, appealing examples, or valuable ancillary material.

My current textbook has not been successful just because of clear objectives, useful self-assessment tools, “Consider This,”“Another Point of View,” and “Working Together” boxes, “Strategic Flexibility” challenges, “Reality Checks,” and interesting pictures and vivid diagrams. It has been successful because the numerous examples relate to readers and it is extraordinarily readable.

There should be little doubt about how to teach “the spark.” Educators who want to supply the fuel that lights the spark of learning must reveal enthusiasm, make their curriculum engaging through relevant exercises and activities, and adopt reading material that is tied — in a wide variety of ways — to the wants, needs, and interests of those assigned to read it.


In the essay, “Top Ten Ways to Involve Students in Decision Making,” the suggestions are specific and practical.

At InsideHigherEd, Elia Powers’ essay is called “Involved Parents, Satisfied Students” and one finding reported from the studies cited is: “The survey also found that students receive both academic and personal benefits from taking part in what it calls 'high impact' activities that require close interaction with their peers, faculty and other professionals. These include study abroad, internships or field placement, capstone projects, first-year seminars, learning communities and undergraduate research with faculty.”


Copyright August, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Essays, SMOERs Words-of-Wisdom, Fridays Laugh, book reviews... And Then Some! Thank you for your comment.