Nurture their Natures

This is the test

Tap into students' desire to know with active learning experiences

For Middle Level

Each student is unique, but nearly all bring the same question to each class: “What are we going to do today?” During my 16 years of teaching, students asked me this question daily. Others asked classmates; still others, most likely, asked themselves. Their question reveals natural curiosity (What?) and a need for active learning (…are we going to do?). Lesson plans that leveraged this curiosity and got students active were the most dependable paths to academic success. Early in my career, I lacked this insight and often started class by collecting work, taking attendance, making announcements, and the like. By the time I finally got down to the business of teaching and learning, students had been sitting, minimally engaged, for several minutes. Their What?—their curiosity, their desire to know, to be led toward learning something new, to be engaged in something challenging—had waned, and no real doing had taken place. As a result, I had bored, restless kids on my hands.

Four ways to do it better
My efforts to change were supported by a number of teaching ideas in the Developmental Designs approach. Four of these are noted below. First, I committed myself to pacing my lessons differently. To optimize learning at the beginning of class, I started the lesson first thing and saved administrative details for later. This was an improvement—students were quickly engaged in the lesson—but they weren’t excited about our class. And why would they be? They were required to sit for the first half of class and listen to me. They weren’t doing enough to spark their natural enthusiasm.

Adding activity
One day, I added something new. As students entered class, I had them sit in an Inside-outside Circle, with each person in the outside ring facing a partner in the inside ring. For two minutes, they quietly studied the notes we’d taken in class the previous day. Then they used their notes to converse with their partners. After a minute, I called “time” and had one of the circles stand, move one place to their right, greet their new partners, and discuss yesterday’s learning again. This took five minutes. What a change! The room was filled with on-task conversation. Everyone had done something, it had happened right away, and it had been content-related. A happy buzz filled the room. Their curiosity, their interest in each other, and their need for activity had been leveraged for learning, and they were primed for more. When we began that day’s lesson, students were noticeably more alert. From that day on, I knew that whatever I had in store for students during the first few minutes of class had a big impact on their enthusiasm for the rest of our time together. Starting with a lecture wasn’t the ticket; having them think, compose their thinking, and briefly chat with their peers about their ideas was far better, and the liveliness of the exercise brought more liveliness to the whole-group lesson that followed.

Adding life to a lecture
What about the whole-group lesson? Could I spark students’ curiosity and leverage their need for activity here, too? I turned to Developmental Designs’ student-interaction structure Think, Ink, Pair, Share. I divided each lecture into several short talks (five minutes or so) rather than one long one, and required students to do something: take notes on a graphic organizer. After each talk, I paired students up and had them discuss my talk. They used their notes and added to them as they shared. Again, what a difference! The new format allowed their natural curiosity and need for activity to enhance their learning. They took notes and asked clarifying questions during each of my short talks. And I noticed something else: They remained engaged after 20 minutes, where I was used to seeing their attention wander before I reached 15 or 16 minutes. I didn’t have to urge them to “Hang in there!” even once.

I changed my teaching practices to better meet students’ needs by using Developmental Designs teaching ideas:

  • Begin each class hour with academic content rather nonacademic items
  • Allow time for student reflection and partner discussion with a structure like Inside-outside Circle before the lecture
  • Break lectures into shorter chunks
  • Think, Ink, Pair, Share: Teach students to use graphic organizers to take notes during lectures

Students’ natural curiosity and need for activity can be used to leverage their academic success. The practices and resources of the Developmental Designs approach helped me engage them in active learning.

Christopher Hagedorn taught seventh and eighth graders at Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is now a
Developmental Designs consultant and writer for Origins.