Education Wow Factor
I can still remember my science teacher in high school standing on the lab table as he held up a long strand of artificial fiber that he had drawn from a liquid solution on the floor. It was like magic. My “Oh wow!” was followed by a silent “How did he do that?” I was hooked on his class for the rest of the year. All too often learning is a dry recitation of facts without context, or meaning, or magic. Students want that “Oh wow!” feeling. It engages them to learn more. Educators try to make it interesting, display excitement—using our voices, or perhaps animated hand or body gestures, but the examples we show, and I’ve been guilty of this myself, often lack excitement or relevance for our students. Fixing this is something I am working on this year.
Recently, I was testing a lesson demonstration for my programming students. It is a fairly simple demo, as I instruct a digital turtle to move around the screen using voice commands. Well, it seems simple to me, but to the students passing through, on their way to another class, it was “Oh Wow! That’s so cool!” It’s not something they are used to seeing. I hope that will lead to “How do you do that?”
Here’s another example: In my Explorations in Computer Science class I also tried for the “Oh wow!” factor with a bit of “paint by numbers”. By using an Excel spreadsheet, you can create a complex conditional formatting formula in one cell, and then copy the format across the rest of the spreadsheet. A picture magically appears, and it’s an easy way to get students shouting, “How did you do that?” Now, that’s the real magic in my opinion.
We’re never going to get “Wow!” from our students on every lesson of course. Some topics don’t easily lend themselves to that sort of expression. But if we tell the story right, we can put things together so that lessons include surprise, can impress, and even amaze our students—well, on occasion. A little “Oh wow!” goes a long way. Finding the magic in our materials, though, can take some work.
Ultimately, we all know that students learn best if they decide they need or want to know it. Learning something for a grade, or passing a test, or avoiding a confrontation, are all poor motivators. Students need to develop that internal motivation to really digest knowledge, and make it part of who they are—as individuals. And, it’s been said that if people don’t think that entertainment is part of teaching they either misunderstand teaching or entertainment. Trust me, getting an “Oh wow!” from students makes teaching a lot more fun for the teachers too!
Alfred Thompson (@Alfredtwo on Twitter) is currently a high school computer science teacher. He has also been a professional software developer, a textbook author, a developer evangelist with Microsoft, a school technology coordinator, a school board member, and more. These days, he sees himself as something of a computer science education activist working to help reach more young people with the news that they can make the world a better place through software. Read more by Alfred Thompson at his Computer Science Teacher blog.