What “Drives” Student Learning? What my son reminded me about teaching and learning

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is currently Internal Director of Pedagogy at Vista High School in Vista, CA. He is proud to be working with great teachers and students to create a more learner-centered public high school experience.

In this awkward era of “distance” or “virtual” learning, teachers have been forced to drastically change their teaching. They are working harder than ever to try to help their students and are turning to digital and media resources in an effort to provide information to students as an attractive alternative to handouts, textbooks, and other traditional classroom learning tools. Teachers are hunting down digital and media resources that already exist as well as spending hours upon hours creating websites, modules in Learning Management Systems, and videos for their students. Many teachers have also found tools such as EdPuzzle or Studio in the Canvas LMS in which they can create videos with embedded quiz prompts to keep track of student participation.

At first, the novelty of watching videos to learn hooked nearly all their students as teachers were reporting over 90% participation rates of students connecting and completing the prompts within the videos. Unfortunately, as the year has progressed through the first six weeks of school at my site, teachers are now reporting fewer than one in four of their students even open the video to watch even though the teachers are still devoting huge chunks of time to create these videos for students.

Then my son, Colin, took a moment to become my teacher and he reminded me that more than ever, we need to reflect on whether our efforts are producing tasks to be completed or whether we are using our curriculum to inspire inquiry, engagement, and learning.

You see, my fifteen-year-old son has started his online course work to get his driving permit. This means that our conversations while I am driving have shifted from his commentary about what he’s viewing on TikTok videos and memes to questions about car maintenance and driving rules. And to be completely transparent, I especially dislike Colin’s commentary about my “rolling stops” followed by questions like, “But what if there was a police officer watching that corner? Would you have gotten a ticket?”

Then, yesterday, Colin truly rocked me to my core as, without any prompting, he contrasted his online driving course and his distance learning in one particular class:

“So I’ve been required to watch these videos for one of my classes and, at the same time, I’ve been watching these videos for my driver’s ed course so that I can start learning what I need to know to get my learner’s permit. What I’ve been noticing is that the structure of these videos are basically the same. But I’m finding I’m much more motivated to watch my driver’s ed videos rather than my assigned videos. And as I started reflecting more on this, I came up with a hypothesis.”

Yes, my son really did use this exact language. (Not shocked yet, just clarifying.) He continues:

“I think I’m more motivated to watch my driver’s ed videos because I can see what the reward at the end of the tunnel will be once I finish these videos. I have something I want to work toward. I can start driving with my learner’s permit. I can get behind the wheel. But with the class assigned videos, I can’t see the reward at the end of the tunnel. This makes watching the videos more difficult because I don’t know what I’m working toward. And to be honest, I don’t even know if I want the reward.”

This thoroughly blew my mind. If I allowed it, this kid would watch YouTube and TikTok videos 24/7. There are times in which I believe the only way I could possibly communicate with him is if I record myself and send him a video via text message. But here he is pointing out that learning by watching videos is not enough. He is advocating for what he needs to help him learn: a clear purpose, relevancy and connection to his future, and time for processing and constructing knowledge.

What’s the purpose of this assignment?

From my son’s perspective, he wanted to know why he was being asked to engage in the assignment. Questions we might ask ourselves:

  • How might we help students to understand how the content / process of the assignment helps them connect their learning to a bigger picture of the unit of study and/or course goals?
  • How might we provide students with opportunities to make connections to prior knowledge and/or anticipate future learning?

How does it connect to me?

From my son’s perspective, he wanted to know if the reward would be worth his time and effort. Questions that we might ask include:

  • How might we teach our students how to connect the learning to their emerging interests, strengths, and passions?
  • In what ways can we provide the space to allow students to connect to the learning in relevant, authentic, and meaningful ways?

Where do I have the chance to process the ideas and information?

From my son’s perspective, only watching a video is not meeting his needs. He wants the opportunity to transfer his knowledge of the video’s content to real experiences. In our discussions in the car is he taking the learning beyond the classroom and is socially constructing knowledge in a meaningful way. We might ask:

  • In what ways can we provide the necessary space for collaboration to allow students to develop and explore inquiries within authentic spaces to deepen their understanding?

Teaching in this forced virtual environment has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. Many of us are working more hours than we ever have before in an attempt to truly meet our students’ needs. So many of us are relying on digital and media resources as we continue to work in this space. Let’s ensure that our efforts pay off by generating opportunities that spark student inquiry, engagement, and learning within all learning spaces.

Would you be willing to share some of the examples where you and your students are achieving this level of engagement? Share in the comments below so we can all learn with and from one another!


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