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The College of St. Scholastica

All teachers have been there. As hard as you try to explain the concepts in a way your students will understand, some lessons simply will not stick.

If you teach elementary-aged kids, you might run into this with abstract lessons, like teaching about responsibility, honesty or being considerate of others. If you’re teaching teens, tackling complex issues like social justice, government or politics may be the most common culprits.

In any case, what do you do when you feel like you’ve tried just about everything to get through to your students? You already know there’s no magic formula for this kind of thing, but there are some things you can try that might help you break through those ever-present barriers.

We talked to a panel of education experts and consulted web-based research to assemble this list of four tips to help you overcome difficulty in the classroom. See if they might work for you and your students!

Try these 4 teaching strategies to get through to your students

1. Pay attention to current trends and interests

It is important for teachers to learn to speak the same language as the kids they teach. Today this includes becoming conversant with the technology that comes so naturally to the young. Integrating things your students are interested in is a great way to draw them in.

For example, when the podcast Serial began to go viral, some high school teachers saw great opportunity in adding it and other podcasts to their lesson plans. Students responded positively — in fact, teachers found that incorporating podcasts actually encouraged students to read more.

Some educators, such as Minneapolis English teacher Erik Andress, have taken it a step further and begun to create their own podcasts. Andress saw a need for his high school students to learn basic life skills, so he started the podcast How to Be a Grownup. In it, he addresses the real-life questions his students have about day-to-day living, responsibility, planning their futures and so much more. This has not only resulted in a more engaged classroom full of students, but it has also increased the levels of trust his students have in him as their teacher and mentor.

For younger students, this could be reflected in using clips from popular kids’ shows to teach important lessons.

2. Get the students involved

Education experts maintain that one of the most effective ways to make a lesson stick is to involve the students directly. This is why we often see student skits or mock trials. These hands-on activities can help transform a lesson into an experience.

“As a dad of two Montessori-going kids, when I began my research in developmental activities for kids, I found that generating empathy can occur when the students feel like they are a part of a story or event,” explains Zef Neemuchwala, founder of Baniyan Kids and former senior teaching fellow in design entrepreneurship at the University of Leeds, UK.

With this in mind, Neemuchwala began creating activity kits in which children can paint the characters of an event, place them on a stage and talk through it. “I have used this technique with great effect when teaching my children about cultural and social events,” he says. He is now working to create and sell his activity kits at large.

Jennifer Tang is a student success manager at Skillify and former Teach for America educator. She recalls a lesson she implemented while teaching 8th grade social studies. When tasked with teaching her students about the different forms of government, she started out the unit in a pretty interesting way.

“On the first day of the unit, I wrote ‘ANARCHY’ on the whiteboard. As students filed into the classroom, I said nothing before throwing handfuls of candy into the air,” she explains. “Students scrambled in chaos to pick up the candy, and I slipped out of the room. After a minute of, ‘What is happening?’ and ‘Where is Mrs. Tang?’ I re-entered the room and silently pointed at the word on the board.”

Tang’s students instantly understood and when it came time for a test on that unit, every single one of her students got that question right.

3. Encourage interaction

Some are asserting that teacher-centered instruction has had its day, and it is now time to hone a more student-centered approach. Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy in which students with varying levels of ability work in small teams to accomplish a variety of learning activities all with the end goal of improving overall understanding of a subject.

Within cooperative learning structures, the role of the teacher shifts to something closer to that of a facilitator. Rather than calling on a single student at a time, the children are given the opportunity to discuss class materials in groups. Maximizing the level of interaction and participation sparks engagement; students begin to learn from one another, rather than solely learning from the teacher. As a result, student achievement soars.

4. Bring experts into the classroom

Let’s face it — teachers can’t all be experts at everything. And even if they could, sometimes students simply get lost in the monotony of listening to the same person speak day after day. The best way to overcome this hurdle when tackling lessons that are difficult to teach is to rely on the insight of an outside expert.

Guest speakers not only have the ability to offer your students a different perspective, but they can also bring with them the refreshing change of pace that the kids in your class might be craving. An added benefit? Connecting students with real-world experts in a field gives them a glimpse of how their day-to-day learning can make a difference outside the walls of their classroom.

Invite a local government official to your classroom to help discuss how a law gets passed or solicit an up-and-coming author to help students understand the importance of translating life experiences into words on the page.

Even still, it’s easier said than done — not all teachers have connections to subject matter experts. That’s where web-based platforms like Nepris come into play. “Nepris provides a simple online platform that allows educators to virtually bring industry professionals into their classrooms,” explains Matt Pronio, program manager at the company. “Students can have live, face-to-face engagements with experts and companies from around the world.”

Ready to reach your 21st Century learners?

The driving force of 21st Century learning is the focus on preparing our young students to be successful in today’s world. And because the world is changing so rapidly in our digital age, the needs of our students are progressing as well.

These four teaching strategies aim to help educators make their classrooms more conducive to today’s young learners. If you’re curious to learn more about the tenets of 21st Century learning and find out how you can enhance your teaching methods to best serve today’s young learners, check out our article on the topic: What is 21st Century learning? How a master’s degree can enhance the effectiveness of your classroom.”