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.

Technology and the Classroom

The ever-increasing influence of ICT in all classrooms is one of the fundamental issues facing educators of all students, whether at a primary, secondary or tertiary level. As a pre-service teacher who finished my high school education a mere seven years ago, the changes in the sophistication and prominence of technology in all aspects of education has been remarkable to witness. Keeping pace with the advances in technology and its application to teaching has been one of the more complicated aspects of my development as a preservice teacher to date. Being up to date with new technology in teaching is simultaneously one of the more important aspects of the profession for a preservice teacher to come to terms with, as its importance to teaching becomes more and more pronounced.

The rapid advancement of technology and its influence in classrooms presents a wide array of opportunities for meaningful and productive learning unheard of even a few years ago. The variety of activities, assessment and learning opportunities made readily available through the increase in availability of devices such as laptops, smartphone and tablet devices has increased greatly. Collaborative opportunities in particular are much easier than in the past thanks to the Internet and programs such as Edmodo, Google Hangouts and Skype.  Technology can be particularly useful for the administrative and assessment aspects of the profession. The ability to streamline marking processes through programs such as Google Docs and Google Sheets can potentially save a significant amount of time in this regard. In order to maximise these opportunities, it is important for teachers to educate themselves on new technologies and know how to use them within their subject areas.

As exciting as employing new technology is for a preservice teacher, elaborate technologies, particularly in the hands of new teachers can result in losing sight of what is most important, which is meaningful and effective learning for students. In my early attempts at lesson and unit planning, I am having to continually remind myself to maintain a focus on what I want students to learn, as opposed to what devices or technology I might utilise to get there. Without effective, targeted use of technology which is pertinent to the topic or subject at hand, learning can actually be hampered. If computers and the Internet are not utilised in clearly expressed and deliberate ways, they can quickly become a source of distraction for students.

There are other potential drawbacks of using digital devices, particularly in subjects such as English and the Humanities, my areas of teaching, in terms of reading and note-taking on digital devices as opposed to pen and paper. Studies have shown that note-taking using paper and pen consistently results in greater retention of knowledge as opposed to note-taking on a computer. Similar studies have also shown that reading a paper book results in greater knowledge retention than reading on a screen. Since reading and note-taking on reading which occurs within the classroom are two fundamental activities which occur frequently in any English and Humanities class, these findings should make a teacher think carefully before utilising ICT in place of more low-tech teaching methods.

To finish, I pose some questions to you, the reader: How do you utilise new technology and social media within your teaching practice? How do you account for the potential pitfalls of these technologies and maximise their beneficial aspects in achieving learning outcomes within your subject areas? It would be great to get some of your thoughts and perspectives on this topic.