There's lots of reasons why that we have no control over. Students are bombarded with stimuli from every direction from the second they step out of our classrooms to the second they enter in the morning. It seems like they're playing games on portable devices, texting, watching TV, playing video games, listening to music, or all of the above just about every minute they are awake. This is a product of the culture we live in. We can argue about whether that's good or bad, but it won't change it, and it won't help us teach any better.
There is one thing that can't be argued, though. Bored students are emotionally unengaged, and emotionally unengaged students don't learn.
Our real dilemma is that there's nothing especially exciting about most of the material we teach.
When I teach narrative writing and how to create plot to my students I often start with this short story:
One sunny day I went to the store. The store was three blocks from my house. When I got to the store I decided that I really wanted a pretzel stick. The pretzel sticks cost 10 cents each. I reached into my pocket, took out a dime and bought one. I ate it. Then I walked home.I then ask them what they thought of my story. They always tell me it's terrible. When I ask why, they tell me it's because nothing happens. It doesn't have a plot. There's no problem, and thus, nothing in which to get interested. It's impossible to make an emotional connection to the main character.
Too much of what we teach resembles that pretzel story. Nothing interesting happens.
In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen explains that textbook companies, in their quest to sell as many social studies textbooks as possible, have eliminated many of the stories that make history interesting. Two that come to my mind quickly are the real story of Thanksgiving and Christopher Columbus's actions, but there are many, many more accounts of events in textbooks that range between skewed and downright false. There's little doubt that real history would be less politically popular, tougher to sell for those textbook companies, and much more interesting to our students.
When we eliminate the controversy the plot is destroyed, and the narrative of our history is reduced to a series of boring facts. Students are uninterested, and emotionally disconnected.
Math class needs narrative just as much. Too often we give students procedures and hints to memorize along with pages of calculations, but no real reason to connect with the material. It's not real to them. Even the "word problems" in textbooks and on standardized tests are absurd failed attempts to make math "real." Take the following problem that was on a recent state standardized test I administered:
You go to the store and buy a block of cheese that is a perfect cube. How many faces, vertices, and edges does the cheese have?Are we really expecting students to believe that this would happen in their lives? Or that they would ever care how many faces, vertices, or edges their cheese would have? It's what Jo Boaler describes as psuedocontext, and it's doing our students a disservice.
Let's stop giving students a multitude of calculations and stop giving them ridiculous problems that lead them to believe that math is something only used for obscure, unrealistic situations. Like the great story, let's give them narratives where the main character, which in this case is them, has to overcome an interesting problem. In the process there's a good chance we'll make math relevant to our students.
In the past few years, I've tried to make an effort to build more of these types of problems into my math class with varying degrees of success. Some, like our Pi Day activity this year, have gone great. Others, like a shipping problem I created, haven't gone nearly as well. With each attempt, though, I've gotten better at forming the type of problem that both allows for great understanding of the topics we're learning and gives students a sense of purpose and emotional connection to the math. There's no doubt from my experiences that students are more engaged with these types of challenges.
Student engagement in other subjects can be increased using many of the same ideas. In reading, we often ask students to read informational and persuasive pieces in which they have no interest and no emotional investment. Why not tell them a story, and then give them a problem they have to solve through research instead? After all, there are only two real reasons we read outside of schools: because we enjoy the material, and because we need to in order to get information for some real reason. Shouldn't our reading classes in school start to reflect that?
The most interesting parts of life usually make great stories. The most interesting teachers are usually great storytellers. The most interested students are usually those who are most engaged with the material they are learning. Let's bring the great narratives that make our lives interesting into our classrooms, and watch our students flourish.