Don’t Sell Students Short: On Teaching Challenging Content

I was motivated to write this piece by a series of conversations I had viewed on Twitter. The initial conversation had been sparked by a poll run by the TES Twitter account, on the subject of emojis and their place in the English classroom. The question the poll raised is an interesting and oft-contested one in teaching circles: can (and should) emojis be used as a legitimate form of communication in the classroom? An interesting debate ensued. Those who supported their use argued that emojis are a legitimate form of communication. Emojis, they argued, were simply the evolution of the way in which people communicated to each other, and classrooms should reflect this change. Another argument raised in favour of emojis in the classroom was their effectiveness as tools of engagement. As a familiar form of communication, their use could accommodate students who struggled with regular written and verbal communication. This argument was argued particularly strongly for students who had conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. On the other hand, those who argued against using them raised concerns about their effectiveness as a teaching tool, particularly in mainstream classrooms. Another concern raised about their use was whether this would come at the expense of developing skills in traditional written and verbal communication.

One of the most consistent arguments raised was that the use of emoji was a useful tool as a ‘hook’ or as a means of engaging students. Engaged students, the argument goes, are more likely to be motivated to learn and subsequently achieve better learning outcomes. On this basis, emojis seem like a reasonable tool for teaching within the classroom. The argument supporting such approaches on the grounds of ‘engagement’ falls short in light of research into educational psychology, however. While motivation and engagement are important, these factors alone do not inherently lead into quality, worthwhile learning. Correlation, in this case, does not equal causation. Research has shown that students tend to be most motivated by what is familiar to them. Using the above example, it is not surprising that students would be more motivated to learn language via emoji than through engaging with a challenging, unfamiliar text, such as one of Shakespeare’s plays.

I have previously written on a similar topic to this on my blog, when I argued the merits of teaching the literary canon. Central to this argument was the challenging nature of these texts, which would push students outside of their comfort zone. These texts are also outside of what they would normally read. Teaching students concepts and ideas which are out of their everyday experience and beyond common knowledge, sometimes referred to as powerful knowledge, is an important part of a comprehensive teaching experience.

Further to this point, the teaching of powerful knowledge involves a belief that all students are entitled to a quality, robust and challenging education, regardless of background. Though well-intentioned, utilising emojis or other gimmicks in lieu of providing students with challenging content can also be a sign of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Rather than assisting struggling students through effective instruction, scaffolding and guidance to achieve higher standards, course content is lowered in difficulty and complexity to accommodate a student’s current level of achievement. This approach does not allow for the growth of the student in terms of achievement and learning and, worse, denies this as even being possible.

With all this in mind, I am sceptical about utilising emojis and other trendy teaching tools, such as fidget spinners, on the grounds of engagement and motivation. With the occasional exception for non-mainstream classrooms and for students with clearly identified communication difficulties, such as students on the Autism spectrum, I believe students are ultimately better served without these tools being used, or being used sparingly and in clear, specific contexts. Though engagement and motivation are of course important factors to consider in lesson planning, meaningful, rigorous and challenging lesson content which give students substantive knowledge and skills are of greater importance.

Civic Discussion, Ideological Diversity and the Humanities Classroom

The issue of political polarisation and bias in classrooms is a time-honoured one, having been an issue as old as the profession itself. Students, parents and the community, at times understandably, have been weary of teachers being biased and partial in the way they approach contentious issues in the classroom. These concerns are particularly relevant in Humanities classrooms, which deals extensively with societal issues and debates. Recent political events, including elections and terrorist attacks and the resulting divisive discussions and rhetoric, have only further enhanced these issues and concerns. As Humanities teachers, it is crucial that we naviagate these issues with students in an even-handed, calm and thoughtful manner.

Such concerns around ideological diversity and debate in classrooms have been heightened for a number of reasons. One of these are widely-reported  protests on college and university campuses across Western countries, Australia included, in which speakers are de-platformed, shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking freely. Ongoing research has shown that there is a lack of ideological diversity on campuses. A report from Heterodox Academy, an organisation led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt which seeks to increase ideological diversity in academia, shows just how pervasive the problem is. Data shows from the report shows that at some colleges, there is a ratio of more than 10 faculty members identifying as liberal or left-of-centre for every conservative or right-of-centre member of faculty. Although less often mentioned, there is also a problem with ideological diversity in primary and secondary classrooms.

When teaching Humanities subjects at a Secondary level, it is important to remain impartial and not push an agenda onto students. As teachers, we are rightly mindful of diversity in terms of gender, race and so on. At times, however, the profession fails to promote ideological diversity. Too often, classrooms can resemble echo chambers, where only a narrow set of views and opinions are discussed and explored. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the main reasons for this, unsurprisingly, is that school classrooms generally reflect the ideological viewpoints of the community in which they are situated (Hess, 2009, p.6). By extension, teachers may, without realising, internalise the dominant viewpoints of the school community in which they are a part of.

In order to cultivate ideological diversity in the classroom, at a minimum, clear, effective and strong principles of classroom and behaviour management must be implemented. Students speaking and voicing an opinion must be able to talk uninterrupted, even when raising points which may go against the consensus thinking of the classroom or may be controversial in some way. It is also essential to model to students how to respond, in terms of what constitutes and appropriate and inappropriate response to challenging ideas. It must be made abundantly clear, for example, that personal insults or denigration are completely unacceptable and that clear consequences will occur for students who violate this basic classroom expectation.

In order to do this effectively, a significant level of introspection and critical reflection on our teaching practice, particularly our manner of communication is necessary. At times, this will require also reflecting on our own belief systems, political beliefs and so on. Research has found that teachers who are willing to explore confrontational and controversial issues with students implicitly encourage students to do likewise (Hess, p.6). In order to teach students the skill of civil discussion on complex and contentious issues and encourage diverse viewpoints on them we as teachers must model these behaviours ourselves. This means conducting ourselves in a professional manner, not only in the classroom but in other avenues where such topics may come up, such as social media. In the same way we must avoid our classrooms becoming merely ideological echo chambers, we must avoid falling into similar habits when discussing contentious issues online or in person outside the classroom.