Sunday, February 3, 2013

Engagement and Instant Feedback

So, the other day, I was giving a test and had students who were finished early and waiting for others. Not an uncommon situation, I suppose. Typically, I have several options available for these students, but a new option presented itself. I was chatting with a student - who happens to be a student who struggles to persist through difficult tasks, who can be challenging to motivate, and so on - and we talked briefly about the school alarm system.

 Our school - like many - has a security system that is activated when the building is empty. One component of this system is motion detectors. On the wall in the hall outside my classroom is a small rectangular box, perhaps three inches tall and two inches wide. There is a small red light on the box, and it lights up when it detects motion, even when the security system is not turned on.

 I told this student about the red light, and he didn't believe me. We stepped into the hall to investigate. "See, right there - that little box on the wall." He was moving, and the light was on. "Now freeze, and the light will go off." There happened to be no one else in the hall, so when he and I stopped moving, the light went off.

 "Cool!" he said. I think that was the first time I had heard undisguised interest from this student. He went back into the classroom and told a friend. They both went back into the hall, and the first student started explaining it to the second. In a few minutes, most of my class was standing in the hall, watching the light turn on when they moved, and trying to "sneak" or "ninja walk" the fifteen feet to the wall without setting off the light.

I was fascinated, so I let this continue. Almost my entire class was engaged and focused on this little red light. After 15 minutes, a few showed signs of being bored with the game, but most of the students appeared ready to play this game with the little red light indefinitely.

I thought about why these students were so interested in something so - for lack of a better word - dumb. I was pretty sure that I could be more interesting than a red light turning on and off. But why didn't they always automatically listen to me the same way?

 I think this was a nice reminder of the value of instant feedback. The kind of instant feedback that makes video games so much fun. They did - or did not do - something, and the light told them what it thought, clearly and quickly. Their sneaking was easily and readily judged good or bad. They could learn and adjust quickly. And, it was challenging. Most students couldn't move more than a few feet before they set off the red light. One student claimed to have been able to do it, though I didn't witness the success. So it wasn't an impossible or unattainable goal. It quickly turned into a brilliantly designed, yet accidental, psychological test. These kids were motivated.

 So, the ultimate question is this: how can I make my classroom more like that little red light?
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