Do It First, Then We’ll Talk

This semester marks a pretty radical shift in my teaching. I’m adopting two new philosophies for each of my courses, rearranging lecture content and schedules, changing project parameters, all around two new principles.

The first is simple. I’ve made it a goal to never “lecture” for more than 20 minutes at a time. At the 20 minute mark, I stop, and we do something else. Either a class discussion, or a small project, or a break, something else. I’ve been on a steady diet of TED talks for the past 12 months, and I’ve been trying to capture the power of that strict time limit, the intensity of a well-crafted 20 minutes. I think it represents the upper limit of my students’ attention span, and rather than fighting it, I’ve decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.

The second principle is more fundamental, and for me much more difficult. Most of the time, my thinking moves from principle to extrapolation. Once I learn the structure of MIDI messages, I can then move on to figure out how you might use them to deliver different kinds of musical information, how you might edit or filter them, a whole host of ideas can follow out of understanding that underlying principle. I organized my classes along similar lines, first teaching all of the core principles of a field of study, and then putting them into practice in the back half of the semester with projects. The result was that I bored my students to death in the first 6 weeks of the semester, bombarding with stuff that I knew was important, but that they really didn’t care much about.

I’m flipping that around this semester. I’m following a “do first, understand later” plan. In music technology, that means getting students to record and mix something the very first week, before they have any clue what they’re doing, and waiting until November before we even start getting into vocabulary, graphing, any of the more technical parts of the course. In Music & Ethics, it means pushing case studies to the front, and systematic moral philosophy to the back end.

I’m hoping that two things happen. First, I’m hoping to make some students more comfortable with unstructured progress, the ability to learn how to function with uncertainty. I’m coming to believe more and more that this is a critical skill to success in life, and something that they have not learned well to this point in their schooling. The skill used to figure out how to record a song with a piece of software without knowing “how it works” is the same skill set that they will later use to plan a semester of music classes, or produce a recording, the same skill set that will let them survive their first year of professional life, when they don’t know how anything works. The ability to jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful, is on the top tier of necessary skills for the professional musician.

My second hope is that it will spark a series of questions, that it will ignite curiosity in the students, and that the back half of the course, the systematic, academic, vocabulary and principles part of the course will become a series of answers to questions that they actually want to know the answer to. Instead of saying “this is a continuous controller message, here’s how it’s structured, memorize this, it’ll be on the test,” it will become “on those projects you’ve been working on, you kept using the mod wheel to change the sounds in interesting ways, here’s what you did, this is why it worked, here’s how you can use it to do other cool things, because it’s structured in this way.”

Basically, I’m trying to trick my students into being curious about the things that I think they should know.

I’m interested to hear from those of you who are teachers, in any capacity. What do you think about these ideas? Any of you go through big upheavals in how you view learning, based on your own experiences? Am I being hopelessly optimistic that these changes will make a difference in how my students learn?

99 thoughts on “Do It First, Then We’ll Talk

  1. Scott

    But seriously, it SOUNDS like a good idea. Could be frustrating for those with zero experience, but I agree that half of being successful is knowing how to “fake it”.

  2. corey

    I like how much you love your job, Mike. I’d guess it translates to the students (a little more than a calculated approach) and I feel that you’re already equipping them to be successful. The people in my world who are most successful at music are forward thinking, optimistic, and upbeat. You inspire me, and I’m not in any of your classes.

  3. corey

    yup. Kinda pissed that I can no longer edit comments. I woulda deleted most of it. My blocking gnomes are blind to the extra gay stuff, I guess.

  4. sharolyn

    The longer I teach, the more I am convinced that the joy must come first. All great ideas! Go, Mike.

  5. Gretchen

    I think first and second grade can be a lot like college :) It is always a good idea, no matter what the age, to keep your listener engaged. The mind/brain can really only concentrate on a single thing for a short period of time. When you’re 6 that’s like 5 minutes, when your 18/19 hopefully 20 minutes. (no, not a single scientific/proved fact stated above). So I think you’re on the right track.

    In elementary school we’re trained on the different learning styles and how to vary our teaching and approach to reach all styles and modes of learning. Tactile, auditory, visual etc. I think this approach gets lost starting in Jr. High and High School and is definitely gone by college. Yet, those same students are still the same “type” of learner later in college. I totally get something better if I can see it done, or get to do it myself. Just hearing about it, doesn’t work for me.

    So blah blah blah, go Mike!

  6. Chad


    You can just use the Official Chad Method, which is do first… then never really understand what you did.

    Works like a charm!

  7. june

    Hey Chad…me too!

    “Go Mike” reminds me a little too much of the “Go Meat” campaign.

    My art profs in college were all for this teaching technique. By one’s junior year, ya kinda got it and would dive in, clueless. Freshmen though…oh my. Walking into a Drawing I class full of freshman was like walking into some kind of torture chamber filled with angsty robots. Stiff arms, stiff faces, barely muffled crying, and the exasperated profs yelling things like “Movement people…MOVE YOUR WHOLE ARM! If I see one more person moving ONLY their wrist while they draw, I am outta here!” And yes, they often would stomp off to their offices, leaving the extra-clueless freshmen weeping into their charcoal.

    Good times, good times.

    Oh, this wasn’t about me…uh…yeah…Go Meaty Mike!

  8. Jon Mann

    I agree, I really respect you being willing to try something new in your teaching. This is one of the same reasons that I teach my elementary/middle school kids to get a sound out and start playing their instruments before I begin introducing theory.

  9. sharolyn

    In my husband’s first-day-of-band powerpoint, he includes that “you will sound like a dying farm animal” (big cow face looking at you). And, that fifth graders are more excited to sound bad than high schoolers are to sound good.

    Joy first. Theory second.

  10. michael lee Post author

    Oh man, I love that phrase. “Joy first, theory second.”

    You know, it never occurred to me until just this moment how much becoming a parent has started to inform my teaching. Huh. More to ponder.

  11. Brandy Ruscica

    Aaaaah. I miss my farm animals! I actually miss 25 violins screeching like fingernails on the chalkboard with smiley faces behind them. I am with Sharolyn! “Joy first, theory second.”
    Go Mike!!!!

  12. Chad

    Ok, so in all seriousness….

    The funny thing was that my experience in Theory 1 was that it was like all of these sounds that I already “knew” all of a sudden had a name, and explanation. It was like the lights came on.

  13. michael lee Post author

    And then, when we got to Theory IV, all of the sudden all of the names and explanations produced sounds that nobody could have possibly done on purpose, or would ever want to hear again.

    Serialism my a**.

  14. june

    Indeed. (What Chad said.) Another perk to this approach is that it can be a huge ego boost to the students who have some amount of intuitiveness going on. I remember a prof admiring one of my first paintings that he had required we complete using only two colors. He slapped my piece up on the wall and said “Anyone here see what she managed to create that no one else did?!” (I probably remember this because it may be the only time an art prof said something so positive about my work. The art profs thrived on being harsh and accusing.) We all did (it was a fairly true gray that I had managed to get via mixing…true gray can be hard to come by, as it turns out.) I recall literally starting to sweat as I thought to myself “Oh dear God, please don’t let him ask me HOW I did that…cuz’ I have NO IDEA!” Then he went on to explain to everyone how I had done it. I was probably the one MOST thankful for the explanation.

    All this to say, yes, I think you’re onto a good plan Mike. Also, having your students do this will give you/them a built-in “before and after” display of where they started and what they’ve learned by the end of the semester. That’s always an ego boost for anyone!

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  16. Robert L

    I taught a class over the past summer (intro to engineering for 11th-12th grade students) while using curiosity as the main motivator (throw people in to the point they are almost overwhelmed, then stimulate the curiosity that usually flows). This open ended approach seems to work well if you have motivated students without too many standards to keep up with.

    Best wishes for your experiment!

  17. Ash

    “Um, honey, you’re kind of a big deal now.
    shoot. Are you going to make us start calling you Master Lee again?”


    Just shot coffee out of my nose!

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  19. Pauline

    Wait….I’m supposed to be curious about what you teach me?

    AND ask questions?

    oh man…this college thing is too hard.

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  21. Barbara

    Hi Michael,

    I’m neither a teacher or a musician. But I am an adult student currently, the most ‘adult’ one in the class, if you know what I mean. If only all the instructors I’ve encountered could heed this advice and incorporate it to the best of their ability. Four hours of lecture in medical/anatomical terms is enough to make anyone apathetic and slovenly in their thinking, regardless of age.

    The nod from Ted is what brought me here and well deserved. This is a really good approach, especially for educators of the youngest minds. I think if it were implemented, there would be nothing but brilliant minds emerging from schools, for they all started out that way in the first place. If only I were six again and could have a do-over!

    Great job, really.

  22. michael lee Post author

    Well, checking in after a few weeks, and the “do first, understand later” approach has worked pretty well in the music technology course, not quite as well in the Music Ethics course.

    In music tech, there are still some students who just clearly don’t want to be there, and they sneer or snore the whole time. Nothing I can do about that, although I almost asked one girl to leave yesterday. Nothing I can do will light up everybody, but this new method has a lower miss rate, I think.

    I’ll be interested to see how the first exam goes. If the projects are any indication, they should do pretty well.

  23. Matthew Penna

    Dear Michael,
    Your idea is solid. I work for a language training company. Our situation is like yours but compressed into 40-minute blocks of time. Think of it as a micro-semester.
    In a lesson, we use the following pattern; fail, present, practice, perform, perform again. This pattern allows us to learn where the student weak points are and then challenge them accordingly and allowing them to fail. Then we show them how to do it in their own way. This last part is how we make it learner centered. If it is not, the meaningfulness will be missing and the chance for long term retention is greatly reduced. Before the end of the lesson, we perform the main task one more time and ask for questions from the student.

    Good luck with your class!

    Kind regards,

  24. achilles3

    I love it. I’ve been teaching for 8 years and coached for 7…the more I enter my classroom the more I want to run it like a “practice”. The students need to be DOING and having FUN not listening to me blather on! They need DO. They need variety. They need practice. Just like I do when I learn.

    I think the TED style 20 is brilliant and it’s ramifications on the rest of the logistics is also SO important…everything from the rest of THAT class period to just how many hours should a course be??? How does that change BIG schedules??? I hope you can keep us abreast of noticed changes both big and small!

    Good Luck!

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  26. Sara E. Gaston

    Michael, you are not alone! Ive been teaching various subjects & grade levels for 15 years, and I am ALWAYS revamping how I teach! I may be “stuck” with certain curriculums but I am certainly never “stuck” on teaching them in any particular way, except to make sure I am reaching my students. In college I remember one anal student who had a fit and who later dropped the class (thank heaven) b/c our prof was not a controlling type of teacher: he WANTED us to think and to be spontaneous and even though he had certain goals he had to reach, i.e. deadlines for tests or papers, his classes were ever-evolving and mindblowing to all of us. Everybody got a chance to contribute and we learned so much from each other as well as from him. I vowed to be like him and for the most part, I think I have. Structures are for earthquake-proofing our buildings but not for limiting minds, especially young ones that are just starting out. Just as I might occasionally rearrange the furniture to make the room setting more conducive for social interactions, so, too, I rearrange the way I teach so I can meet the needs of all of my students, not just those who think like I do. I have learned so much from my students over the years, about learning styles and learning preferences– I am usually a popular teacher b/c, as one student told me, I “teach realism from the heart instead of idealism from a book.” That being said, I never claimed to be the be-all and end-all authority on any particular subject, so who am I to demand that my students listen to me lecture when they have minds that can think and ideas that need to be shared, too? — Sara B., Bishop, CA

  27. Micki M.

    Your idea sounds positive. As a student I would be a little puzzled at the beginning about the appropriate expectation. However, with encouragement to just “give it a try,” I think I would adjust. With my ED students, making them comfortable with the process, works wonders. My students are confident and secure with me and my teaching style. I do believe I can alter some of my methodologies to include “give it a try and we’ll talk later”.

  28. CoachLeslie

    HI Michael,
    Your ideas feel like the brainchild of a teacher coming into his own. When you finally learn that students don’t want you to teach them, they want to learn, you embrace the heart of teaching. I love project based teaching and feel it is the best way to do exactly what you describe, get students active in the learning process, taking risks and experimenting. You will be surprised I think that toward the end of the semester when you think you will be teaching the concepts you were going to teach in the beginning that your students already understand so much more than if you taught them first. You will be teaching them all year as your students will be learning on an as the need comes up basis. Then they will ask questions. I find my students remember so much more when they NEED to know the information, when I answer their question, they remember the answer.

    I feel that you are correct in seeing the value to their professional lives of jumping in with a project without a foundation of what to expect. I think most of my life and I know most of the last 4 years have been that way, and it has been the most learning and the most fun I have had learning in my adult life!

    Anyway, I feel your on to something there! Hang on, sounds like a good year!

  29. JLord

    I’m guessing LP1 spawned from this concept. “Here’s Logic and a drum loop…have fun!”

    And you’re absolutely right about getting students comfortable with learning things on their own. For Beatty’s Music Business I Final project, you basically get told “Produce a CD” or “Plan a Tour” or something of that nature, with little to no specific instruction as to how to go about it. And the awesome thing: students do research on what it is they want to do specifically. So, instead of spending 2 weeks bringing everyone in the class through the process of budgeting for recording, I did all the research myself, and probably went more in depth than he could have in a class lecture.

  30. michael Post author

    That’s the same thing we do in Production Techniques. The whole point of the class is to put you in an environment where you just do the stuff you’ve been learning about.

  31. Debbie G.

    I agree that many students will just tune you out or zone out after 20 minutes of listening to a lecture…as that is what I have always done as a student. I think that is great that you are trying to not “lecture” more than 20 minutes at a time. Giving the students activities to get them to get up and “think” in between lectures is so important – no matter what age. That is what we do at the elementary level – and I think it is important at any age or grade, even college level.
    I also like your “do first” and then “understand later.” I believe that will make the students more interested and able to understand a bit more when it is time for lecture. I do think that will spark questions during your lecture as they will have a deeper understanding of what you are talking about. I also think having students work on unstructured activiites is important as I think it makes them “think outiside of the box” and be able to figure some things out on their own before they really know what they are doing. I like your approach. I think you will see the results you are hoping for at the end.

  32. Kris K.

    I teach third and fourth grade learning handicapped students. I read this article about a week ago, and, out of desperation, decided to give your ideas a try. It’s getting to be towards the end of the school year, and the kids have just about given up on learning anything. Well, to make a long story short, I think next school year is going to be a lot better! Instead of doing a long, boring lecture about the California missions, I decided to get a bunch of mission kits and let the kids go to town with them. What do you know? Suddenly, I had a room full of kids who actually wanted to know the story behind the Mission Era! I had absolutely no behavior problems that day and my aide and I did not take one Excedrin (very unusual). Truly a great day! I really think you are on to something great. I love how giving the kids something to work on up front sparks curiousity. I think it’s great to trick kids into being interested in subject! They don’t mind a bit!

  33. Christina Knight

    I teach special education students, and their attention span is far from long. Your lecture for 20 minutes and then stop is great. I wish more of my students and my I own child’s teachers would use this philosophy. For some reason some expect students to just sit there and internalize information like a sponge. When in fact very few students have that type of learning capacity. The short pieces is a great philosophy.

    I also like how you are trying to change and keep up. You are not trying to fit into a mold and stay there since it is comfortable. Kids like learning and doing new things all the time. Your idea of teaching backwards and getting the kids right into the “meat” of the lesson is spectacular. keep it going.

  34. Betty Romero

    I also teach special need students and lectures do not hold their attention for more than a few minutes. When I present a lesson, i explain what we are gong to do, review inportant data briefly then I present a hands on or collaborative activity that includes individaul groups or the class as a whole. If the studnets are directly involved they are more likely to stay on task and even learn a little.
    I like the fact that Micahel has realized that anything more than twenty minutes for any student is futile. most students loose interest and will either act out inappropriately causing negative behaviors.

    i like the fact that Michaeltryies to instuct to what may occur in real life, such as unstructured activities or events. Reality in my classroom of SH and autistic studnets is that unstructured or ujplanned events cause negative behaviors. many of my autisitc studnets go by picture schedules and need the structure of a schedule and the consistancy that it is the same. Not to say that we do not have unplanned events that are not in our schedule, but when i do something out of schedule or an unplanned incident occurs, I need to talk to my class and let them know what is happening that is different and why. I found thatby preparing my students for things that can happen that are unplanned (whenever possible anyway) they react more appropriately to the event with out negative behaviors or outbursts.

  35. Betty Romero

    I also teach special need students and lectures do not hold their attention for more than a few minutes. When I present a lesson, i explain what we are going to do, review important data briefly then I present a hands on or collaborative activity that includes individual groups or the class as a whole. If the students are directly involved they are more likely to stay on task and even learn a little.
    I like the fact that Michael has realized that anything more than twenty minutes for any student is futile. most students lose interest and will either act out inappropriately causing negative behaviors.
    I like the fact that Michael tries to instruct to what may occur in real life, such as unstructured activities or events. Reality in my classroom of SH and autistic students is that unstructured or unplanned events cause negative behaviors. many of my autistic students go by picture schedules and need the structure of a schedule and the consistency that it is the same. Not to say that we do not have unplanned events that are not in our schedule, but when i do something out of schedule or an unplanned incident occurs, I need to talk to my class and let them know what is happening that is different and why. I found thatby preparing my students for things that can happen that are unplanned (whenever possible anyway) they react more appropriately to the event without negative behaviors or outbursts.
    I like the do first understand later concept. My special needs students learn best with hands on activities. The need to do to understand, as often I do. I also like the fact that when they are involved in an activity more questions and conversation is sparked. During lecture it is hard for my students to comprehend what i am talking about so they do not ask questions. During a hands on activity they do ask; what, why, when and where questions, and often they don’t even know they are asking productive questions, but they are learning.
    I feel that you have given thought and planning into your instruction instead of just doing. I feel that my students are more engaged when activities are planned and structured and have meaning.

  36. Maria Elena Agulus

    I teach 9-12 grades students with Severely handicapped in a self-contained classroom setting. The focus of my program is mainly on Life skills and Functional Academics. Where there are instances where lectures are useful, I feel the majority of the time they can be rather”preachy” and condescending. I understand that the lecturer may have something useful to convey, but I don’t think they realize how boring a lecture can be. As a teacher, I try not to be as talkative to my students unless there are visual aids or things that they can handle as part of my lesson. I feel that this gives them something else to focus on as I talk and they seem to retain more of what thet hear as I go along. I feel that structure is the biggest advantage to reaching my students. They respond to a set schedule, or as close as can get to one and it gives them focus and a better sense of comprehension. I think that is the most challenging thing for any teacher, to not only get the lesson acreoos to the students, but to do so in a way that they’re engaged in the lesson on a level of basic understanding. I remeber my first week as a teacher and how difficult it was for my students and I as we felt each other out like two boxers circling the ring in the first round. Neither one is aware of the others strategy. Neither man is willing to take that chance and make the first move, take the first step. But as a teacher, I have to be the one who makes that way always. It is after all my classroom, and it is my job to lead, to teach and to control the classroom. This is the way to instill the confidence in me that my students needed to feel comfortable enough to open their minds to what i want to teach them. I also agree with the “do first, understand later” concept. I think that it offers students the satisfaction of being physically involved with the lesson as it’s presented. There’s an old saying, “catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed his village forever.” We as teachers must consider ourselves as fishers of students. We teach them step by step the tools they will need to be the best they can be, this will allow them to take advantage of what they have learned, and to put it to use.
    I don’t know how much the use of electronics can advance the teaching/learning experience in the classroom, but as these students are a part of the age of technology, the time will come when we as teachers will become the “oracles” they look to for answers. As for my students, they have an eagerness to learn that is both challenging and satisfying to me. There is a sense of accomplishment that they feel and what they want is to learn more. I truly feel that we owe it to them and to ourselves to go above and beyond whatever level of achievement is before us. They don’t wan to hear it, or see it…but grab it, hold it in their hands and see what they can make it do.

  37. Sara E. B.

    Michael, you are not alone! I’ve been teaching various subjects & grade levels for 15 years, and I am ALWAYS revamping how I teach! I may be “stuck” with certain curricula but I am certainly never “stuck” on teaching them in any particular way, except to make sure I am reaching my students. In college I remember one anal student who had a fit and who later dropped the class (thank heaven) b/c our prof was not a controlling type of teacher: he WANTED us to think and to be spontaneous and even though he had certain goals he had to reach, i.e. deadlines for tests or papers, his classes were ever-evolving and mind-blowing to all of us. Everybody got a chance to contribute and we learned so much from each other as well as from him. I vowed to be like him and for the most part, I think I have. Structures are for earthquake-proofing our buildings but not for limiting minds, especially young ones that are just starting out. Just as I might occasionally rearrange the furniture to make the room setting more conducive for social interactions, so, too, I rearrange the way I teach so I can meet the needs of all of my students, not just those who think like I do. I have learned so much from my students over the years, about learning styles and learning preferences– I am usually a popular teacher b/c, as one student told me, I “teach realism from the heart instead of idealism from a book.” That being said, I never claimed to be the be-all and end-all authority on any particular subject, so who am I to demand that my students listen to me lecture when they have minds that can think and ideas that need to be shared, too? — Sara B., Bishop, CA

  38. Jaime

    I truly think that more teachers should think this way! I am so glad to read that the teaching process is our responsibility. I try and live a fearless life style and I feel that I too am hopelessly optimistic about making a difference to just one student or co-worker each and every day. To think that I gave another person hope for a moment, hour, or day is such a gift. Another person’s life is just a little better today than yesterday is so cool. I also get paid to do this for a living!
    Having taught students with Autism and now teaching men with mental illnesses make me think that 20 minutes is way too long for them. Five to ten minutes is about the limit of their attention and all they can handle. I am refining the delivery of the material and restating the main topic throughout the 40 minutes of class. What struck me is that another teacher thought about how the delivery could be changed to better meet the learning process of the students, putting their learning needs first. I also thought about the pyramid teaching strategy from the TOP down and not the Bottom UP teaching method. It also reminded me of the seven year old roller coaster seen on a TED video clip. I view my student’s learning more like a DOT to DOT; using words, ideas, handouts, discussions, DVD s and the whiteboard to guide the student’s learning and understanding. Reading articles like this gives me hope for our educators and makes me feel great about being a teacher!

  39. David Reese

    As a teacher of not only elementary students but more specifically special ed students, a smaller amount of lecture is much more effective. So I agree that 20 minutes is probably most people can handle. If you think about it, most TV programs are 22 minutes or less. We as a society do not have a long attention span. It is very important for us to remember that depending on the age of our students 20 minutes may be too long. I’ve read various studies that say 12 minutes and even 6 minutes of lecture is most students can handle before a transitional activity is needed. The more involvement that can occur always makes learning more meaningful and most importantly fun!

  40. Alison Ingle

    I am a teacher of special needs students in the 5th and 6th grade and I agree with your thoughts on having 20 minute lectures. My students are really only able to handle 20 minutes of lecture time, and in that time we also fit in an activity that gets them up and out of their seats. I see student’s all the time who look like they are listening, but are actually not, and I think to myself after listening to someone for more than 20 minutes I start to tune out too! I mostly liked your comment about crafting your 20 minutes. If we you are only lecturing in 20 minute increments you really want to make sure you get the key points and information in. Sometimes not an easy thing to do. I think your thoughts on this method of teaching are right on. I also agree with hands on learning right from the start and then teaching about the process, what they learned and how they got their finished product after the fact. I think this really grabs their attention and once we have that then learning can occur.

  41. Melissa Hedden

    I believe the 20-minute lecture is absolutely necessary if you want to keep people engaged. Even as adults in the workforce, if someone talks longer than 20 minutes, we have checked out. Yes, adults are sometimes better at faking their inability to stay focused, but the “important” stuff was lost somewhere between the end of minute 20 and the beginning of minute 35. Nobody cares anymore…

    As a specialeducation teacher, the teachers that have the most success with all of their students are the ones that have mastered the art of the 20 minute lecture. To be honest, it is more like an 8-minute lecture for middle-schoolers. Changing it around and getting people to do other things besides sit and listen is a better method of teaching, which usually means less behavior issues too!

    I feel empowered as an RSP teacher when my partner teachers are able to utitlize the 20-minute rule. The teachers who just keep droning on have the worst behavior and the most boring teaching tactics. I feel sad just being in those rooms because the boredom level becomes excruciating – even for me

    I feel that if more educators incorporated this rule into their everday style – students might actually enjoy coming to school. The biggest predictor to failure in my district is the motivation level. Boring lectures that last forever, coupled with extreme behavior!displays is unfair to all involved.

  42. Melissa Hedden

    As a special educator, I feel that the 20-minute rule for lectures should be enforced across the board. Whenever a full class is in session – 20 minutes should be the maximum amount of time a group is expected to “sit” through a presentation. I believe that if more teachers tried this, motivation levels would increase – leading to both happier students and teachers.

    In reality, there is no reasons why 20-minutes shouldn’t be the cut-off point for a change of pace – especially in large group settings. It is hard to keep an audience’s attention – which is what the students really are – and audience when it is a lecture.

    As an RSP teacher, I feel empowered when my partner teachers engage their students in multiple ways and with multiple activities. I am able to be a better help to my students when there is more activity going on – instead of just listening to the teacher drone on and on.

    I believe that keeping things flowing and to the point is much more successful than teacher-directed lecturing.

  43. Erik Hulstrom

    I loved your thoughts in this blog. I have found that the attention span of most adults not only students is about 20 minutes and then after that all you have to say has lost its effectiveness. I do find that it is extremely hard to find the funding to complete the hands on part of what you are talking about. I have found creative ways to accomplish this with very little money going into it at all. I would say that to start the first half of the year with mostly lecture type style teaching would bore the students and that is why I do the lecture monday-wednesday quiz thursday and then a lab on friday. This has worked out well for me and I have seen a huge growth with my students. I feel that what you have to say is right on, but not sure how practical it is with the current system the education system runs on now. Great blog.

  44. June Hedges

    I feel that this is right on target! I teach a variety of students who have special needs and the best way to teach my students is hands on. I feel that most of us are tactile learners and that you are able to feel your way to understanding. Take for instance, I told my class, just the other day, that we were going to make Silly Putty. Now I don’t expect for them to remember, but some might associate the plastic egg with the Silly Putty. I got the ingredients out for them to see. I explained that when you mix them together, that you will get this great concoction called Silly Putty. After I showed them step by step directions on how to make it, they were each given a chance to mix their own mixture. This was exciting for many, to see the process of the solution of glue and starch to thicken up and then to be formed into a ball of putty.
    Just this experiment will give them a basic understanding of Science experiments. Further discussion will reflect what the students made and they will have a better view of what goes into experiments. Audio visual aides are another good resource,also, in learning about different things. I like the TED talks- very informative and short and to the point.
    I feel that you are exactly right by limiting the lectures and having your students excited about what they are learning.

  45. Gabe

    Hi Michael,

    I think I want to register for your class. I feel like it’s “right up my alley”. Getting to record music and fumble around at the same time sounds like quite an adventure!

    I am a Special Education Teacher. One way my young students acquire language rapidly is through song lyrics. Have you ever thought about including some students with Mild/Moderate learning disabilities in your program? I think they would love it.

    I am struck with your willingness to make changes in your teaching methods! It is quite inspiring! It rejuvenates me.

    I also feel a connection with your “Do It First, Then We’ll Talk” attitude. My best learning comes from doing and then talking about it later.

    I applaud you for your enthusiasm to change as well as your desire to listen to your students as a means to understand, reach, and teach them. Keep up the good work!

  46. Dana

    The great thing about letting your students try things first is that they will be motivated to learn more and will probably enjoy the learning process. They will start working together and will talk about what they are learning and doing. A novice can ask someone who has a working knowledge without feeling dumb. People will start creating. When they start to learn the terms and functions, it will mean something. I teach elementary students. They learn a lot more when they are learning together and talking about what they are doing. They learn more when they start using their hands to figure things out. Your idea is great.

  47. Christina Knight

    I like what you state about talk 20 minutes and then do something else. I remember when I was in school, and the teacher would talk the entire period. I would be bored to death by the end, and many other students would be asleep. I personally feel that giving students breaks from long lectures and giving them things to do, keeps them more in touch with what is going on, and they do not loose interest as easy.
    I like to use this type of teaching, due to the fact that special education students have short attention spans. Having short breaks and small frequent bits of information will help them retain the information much better. I personally feel you should keep up with what you are doing.

  48. Christine Pierce

    The twenty minute lecture time and then switching to something else makes a lot of sense to me. I am a substitute teacher and work with students from Kindergarten to eighth grade. I am also a college student and have recently obtained two credentials; one is a Multiple Subject teaching Credential, the other is a Special Education Credential. Needless to say, I have been in a lot of classrooms lately. I have noticed how students including myself get antsy after 20 minutes of lecturing. I also think that students want to interact with the curriculum and get their hands dirty at all ages. Many of my students have special needs and processing disabilities. They need to talk about what they are learning, and see themselves, work out problems. I think it works with different types of learners (audio, visual, kinesthetic, textile) also. It helps to switch up the activities because students have different learning styles. When they interact, I think it could be with a small group or whole group discussion, projects, or breaks. I feel that when students have the opportunity to experience the curriculum for themselves, it makes the learning more meaningful to them. I think if the curriculum becomes meaningful to the students they will be able to apply it to their lives, then they have a reason to learn.
    I think your backwards approach to setting up your semester planning rocks! Students will embrace this method, especially the creative types that attend music classes. What better way to learn than figuring it out and making mistakes. I feel like these students will have a hunger for knowledge after trying to do their project without all the nuts and bolts. This strategy will work for many students of different ages and in different classes. I can see this working in history classes, art, math, and P. E. Once the students start on a project without the principles of the curriculum they will a. find answers out for themselves or b. get frustrated or c. ask questions. All of these are helpful because then, they will be ready to learn more.
    Thank you for this article,
    Christine Pierce

  49. ryan

    I like the way you are flipping the class around. I had a shop class where we were flung into the work right off the bat (nothing that would hurt anyone). We all came up with an odd assortment of objects made from sheet metal. They were all junk and had no real function but getting hands on with the tools got everyone interested in the process and possibilities. Now I will say that the lectures when on for longer than 20 minutes and the drafting portions was a little boring but I stayed tuned in because I could associate it with a real tangible experience.
    As a Special Day Class teacher I completely get the 20 minute mark. In reality its a little shorter in my room but I think you’re on the mark time wise even for general ed students. Pushing back the vocab and graphing until it all means something is also an outstanding idea.

  50. Chris Ramsay

    This is a very interesting approach that I think will work. As I was reading the article, I began to break the process down; by the time I reached the end of the article your process completely made sense. Having the students work backwards is a great way for them to explore and find answers on their own. I think when a child is curious about the answers the information has a better chance of sticking. This strikes me as a faciltator teaching model, where the teacher guides rather than leads. I feel that this style would work for my students who get tired of listening to me, but love to dive into things head first.

  51. Joshua Nelson

    I feel like this is a really really great idea for some different classes. One of the first classes that I could see this being beneficial for is a computer literacy class. A few years ago, I taught a comp. lit. class, and I found the students have no buy in until they are working on the project. I would have definitely done this more often if I would have thought about it. Although I am excited to do this in some areas, I think that sticking to the basic I teach you first and you try it later approach might be bad in some scenarios. I couldn’t imagine doing this in a class where I am teaching something like structures. For example, I think don’t know how I could do this if I were teaching paragraph writing, but heck, I might be wrong. I am open to hearing how someone could do that. In the end, I feel like this is something that I could really use in my class. I think back to biology, and how one of my teachers did this with the whole kingdom, phylum, order, class thing, and how he had us organize the animals in our own way before showing us how actual biologists do it. It was a very eye opening experience, and I am thinking that it would be for many other students as well!

  52. Holly Storey

    As a math teacher in a Non Public school at this time, I frequently use the two methods described. I often make any sort of lecture 20 minutes or less simple because I won’t have any students left in class after 20 minutes. I love the idea of the do first and ask questions later and it is something that works great with some topics. However, I have tried it with some concepts and seen it fail, it just needs to be well thought out. One example, of this method being successful was in teaching my students about function tables and first having then use shapes and make different patterns before even introducing the terms of what it was that we were learning. With my particular class of special education students they will have extreme challenges in learning a concept without that first thread of curiousness being brought out by some do first activity. Good job for being able to change up your teaching style in such an adventurous manner.

  53. Christopher

    Pretty interesting stuff. I try really hard to do the same thing in terms of triggering curiosity about things they already know about and just getting them to think creatively about things that they don’t know about.

    For me, truthfully this is an amazing challenge because my students (emotionally disturbed high school students) have SERIOUS gaps of knowledge so it almost feels like they are completely missing the framework to even be curious about things. I will give them warm up work and they will just look at me that tell me that they don’t know what to do or how to take the first step – they just don’t understand how to be curious. So my biggest challenge becomes how to teach them how to be curious, how to use resources, how to skim through and RETAIN material, and how to be effective at all of this. Exhausting, but worth every bit of energy.

  54. Julie Janzen

    As others have previously written, I appreciate your desire to stay within a students’ attention span. I find myself drifting in long lectures. How can I expect my students (six and seventh graders in a Special Day Class) to last for even that long? I try really hard to vary my methods and do more project based lessons. However, one thing that I feel like I could use more of is the experimentation that you talk about. Constructivism is talked about a lot but is really not as easy to implement. Students, whether receiving Special Education services or not, really resist trying and failing at something. I find that the majority of my students, when asked to do a task that they do not know how to complete, either say “I can’t do this” or “It’s to hard” and would rather leave it blank then try and possibly fail and learn something.
    As I am thinking about this “try first” method, I wonder what I would do if approached with it as a student. I think I might have an initial reaction much like my students. Although, I think I would try to pump the professor for information. I would be overly concerned with failing and keep asking until I got an explanation. While this may be a negative quality in that I would be overly concerned with messing up, it is a jumping off point for asking questions and figuring out things the best I can. I am not one to give up, but I am one who worries. Maybe I can teach my students the positive “I want to know everything and will find out who will tell me” passion without all that pesky anxiety that I often include with it. I would be curious to hear more about how your implementation of these ideals has worked out for you. Thanks for starting the conversation.

  55. Michelle Torres

    I think this a great teaching strategy to use in the classroom. I feel that this would help address all needs of the various learning abilities that students have. I would have definitely learned at lot more from this approach as an elementary student, rather the direct teaching/ lecture approach where I would tend to zone out as a kid. I think this will help keep students more attentive in class, since they may be doing something different everyday. I also think that this might help motivate students to go to class everyday. What strikes me is that this theory has never been used before (at least what I know of). I think it makes perfect sense, and if it doesn’t work then you could go back to the way you taught before. It’s great that you are trying a new technique in the classroom that no one has done before. I’m curious how this would work with my elementary students that receive resource services from me. Most of my students have trouble focusing and keeping their attention on something for more than 10-minutes. I would be interested to see how this would teaching approach would work for my students, as well as other students with short attention spans.

  56. Angelina Peluso

    I think that your view on how students can learn new things is unique and may spark more interest than the daily routine. I feel that you may have found a formula that works with the 20 minute lecture, since most students tune you out within the first 30 minutes of class. I work with learning disabled students, so I try to get them to respond to questions about the material or restate the material after each paragraph. I think the idea of teaching things from the big concept to the smaller parts is a good idea. I have seen this done in several textbooks, especially in science. I think that teaching students in any new way to spark curiosity is worth a try. I know that the unstructured process does teach life skills and this will probably work with most students, but the students that I work with have to have repetition and stability. I know that when I try new things most of my students can not buy into them but I still try. I feel that role play works well with new ways to teach students that I work with, so I feel that I can get the same results that you may get (learning to function with uncertainty) but still keep stability in the classroom. I wish that I would have had more teachers like you growing up. Sparking interest and curiosity is so important in education and in life, your students are lucky that you are helping them build these skills.

  57. Denise Claxton

    The 20 minute lecture rule is one that has been around a long time, and I’ve never understood why anyone would want to break it. I can’t possibly find even myself interesting enough to talk for 20 minutes straight. Don’t you think it’s more likely that the lecture is interspersed with discussion? While I attended many lecture courses in my undergraduate work, most were interesting and engaging because a lot of discussion was engendered during that time. If I had had to wait until the end of the lecture before asking a question or pursuing a thought through class discussion, I surely would’ve forgotten what I wanted to pursue by the end, or would have realized that by adding to the lecture time, my fellow students would have telegraphed their frustration with me in ways subtle or not.

    As for the notion of doing before instruction, isn’t that the natural course of the human experience? It is the application of the scientific method to most of life. We must gather evidence, knowledge, experience before we can begin to comment on the compendium of their meaning or even begin to recognize a pattern. Who would give credibility to a young philosopher with no life experience on which to hang his philosophies? Answer: only those who view a 17 year old pop star as an object worthy of their adulation and a bio-pic movie. Namely, 12 year old girls.

    As a teacher of writing, I’ve seen this horse before the cart principle played out in the classroom. Despite my best efforts to make writing as directed and error proof as possible through the use of starter sentences, suggested vocabulary, good transition words, cliches to avoid, prescribed number of paragraphs, prescribed content of said paragraphs, number of works cited and a big shiny rubric which spells out exactly how many points they may expect to garner based on their ability to follow my prescription, I still have students who are terrified to make a mark on that mocking, pristine, white paper. (how many I statements have I used? I think? I feel?) They are terrified of making a mess, which is exactly where all good writing starts. I have likened this experience to a class of students who would like to become Olympic swimmers. They have already watched hours of world champion swimmers, seen video instruction of how to properly stroke, breathe and kick, and practiced several brilliant exercises on the deck of the pool. However, in order to fulfill their dream, they are at some point going to have to get wet. Just getting them to dip their toes in has become a challenge, let alone jump in exuberantly. The getting wet and making a mess IS the learning. It IS the experience from which we may begin to extrapolate a pattern of successes and failures and figure out how to make more successful mistakes in the future.

    On the other hand…I have also been privileged to be a master teacher for student teachers. One program released their novice teachers into my inner city, 92% non English speaking, gang banger classroom without any instruction in classroom/behavior management. The philosophy behind this, I was informed, was that the novices wouldn’t comprehend much about classroom management until they began to see a need for it. This was a philosophy obviously not grounded in experience within a classroom. The instruction took place 6 weeks into the semester. By which time the student teachers had already imploded. Every shop teacher knows the benefit of some instruction before releasing his students to the jaws of heavy machinery. Granted, it probably doesn’t mean much to the hellbent fool hearty souls, but it has probably saved more than an few limbs through the course of the years. This is what strikes me.

  58. michael Post author

    Ok, help me out – is this post listed on a course syllabus somewhere? Where are all of these random comments coming from? Anybody?

  59. Deborah McNamara

    Ahhhhh…………. this is the master plan! This is life. The ability to learn how to function with uncertainty definitely is a critical skill necessary to be successful in life. To jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful is a critical skill all of us and our students need to master.
    The learning that takes place is empowering because it is done by doing and collaborating with colleagues and masters in the field. Survival skills are used by incorporating the trial and error approach, “tinkering” and exploring to find out new discoveries and how things work, and by communicating / collaborating with others. I learned how to swim with this master plan. The life guard threw 3 students at a time out of our boat into the middle of a rock quarry pond. The water was deep and murky. We all instinctively used the skills he had previously taught. This time we are actually swimming to save our lives as he yells “Watch out for the giant snapping turtles!” Hollywood brought this style of learning to life in the movie “Karate Kid”. The top selling book, soon to be movie, “Unbroken”, is a true story with the same plan. This is how real life works. When my husband suddenly passed away these skills came into full force. I am surviving and thriving because of my faith and mind set.

  60. Sara C.

    I have heard of the 20 minute lecture rule before. Attending several conferences and trainings, they disucss that you lose an audience’s attention after x amount of minutes. I feel this is a good practice to use in the classroom because you DO lose students when they are just having facts thrown at them.
    I also like the term, “do first”. Because I teach SPED, hands on is the number one approach I use with my students. They learn best by working while learning. And, you are absolutely right! Real life really does throw people into situations that make them react and do first before thinking and figuring out.

  61. Kimberly Molina

    I am a second year special education teacher for severely handicapped high school students. I am also, what seems like, a career student since I have been attending college with few breaks for the last 10 years. When I am being lectured I know that majority of teachers will lose my attention in about 15 minutes, especially when they are just going on and on about things that really don’t apply to me at that moment. I once had an instructor spend 2 hours trying to explain to the class how to fill out a certain form for special education students and because none of us had actually had to do it before and we weren’t yet in the classroom teaching it made no sense at all. After trying to follow for the first 30 minutes I eventually tuned out and logged into my facebook account. With that being said, I like your idea of “do first, understand later”. I feel it is a great way to get students involved in the process and make the material learned later that much more applicable to the task at hand. The only worry I have with that is the frustration level. I might be misunderstanding you, but it appears that you want students to try things, ask questions, and then you will teach them the information to answer those questions at a later date. Am I correct? If this is the case I know that if I were your student I would get easily frustrated. As an example, I am a product of the “new math” taught in the 90s where students were given problems, told to solve them however they saw fit, and then the teacher would go over the correct way later. Well, after an entire semester of that I was so confused and so far behind I didn’t know which end was up. I think that the “do first, understand later” concept can be very good as long as you don’t wait too long to share the knowledge so that you can avoid the frustration level.

    You said that you feel that “the ability to jump into something with only a vague sense of how it works, and to emerge successful, is on the top tier of necessary skills for the professional musician.” I do not know much about the music world except that I listen to my Ipod and I am pleased to hear wonderfully orchestrated music. What I do know is jumping into something with only a vague sense of how it works. As I mentioned before, I am a second year teacher. I was hired as an intern after taking only three of my teacher’s prep classes and passing the appropriate tests. There was very little hands-on experience and I had a lot of questions. Luckily, I have been able to come out successful, as is your wish for your students, but I was also lucky enough to have wonderful mentors around me who were willing to answer my questions on the spot. As I mentioned before, if my understanding of the concept is correct, be careful not to wait too long before answering questions. At the same time though, I feel that part of what makes a great teacher is one who can recognize their own faults and mistakes and can recognize when something is not working for the benefit of the students and is willing to make changes. The changes may not always turn out right, but they are always a stepping stone to the next improvement. I have full respect for your willingness to try new things and to self reflect. I see that this was originally posted to your blog in 2008. I’d be curious to hear how well it worked and if there are changes you have made to your teaching style since then!

  62. Christy Carlton

    I am a special education teacher to students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. My students are first and second grade kids. I have been teaching now for eight years, and am always revamping my techniques and strategies to hopefully better my teaching. As for the 20 minute lecture rule, I can definitely see that my students become board after about 15 to 20 minutes of hearing me lecture on a subject. I try to keep them involved in the discussion and make it fun. My students like to do a lot of “hands on” when it comes to practicing what we have learned. I think it definitely helps them to better understand what we have been talking about if we put it into practice.
    Your idea about doing before actually learning is interesting as well. I would be interested to do this with my special education students in my classroom. I would be concerned about the possibility of their being so confused at the beginning though, due to they sometimes become frustrated if they don’t know the reason for something. However, if I approach it like you and assure them that we are just learning through our doing first, I think we could have a lot of fun with this! Good article, thank you.

  63. Joy Heuer

    I am intrigued by your approach. It is strategically different than the state standardized learning approach. The nice part about teaching music is that there is more room for creative teaching style. I think that by plunging in to the content head first you will either hook kids or make them so frustrated they don’t want to continue. I am a student that has always liked to know what I’m doing, what is expected of me, and how things work before I undertake a project. However, that is just me. Those students that prefer a hands on approach would love your class and I have no doubt that you probably will help create some professional musicians. I am a special education teacher for mod./sev. K-1. Everyday is busy but I realized that the biggest adjustments I had to make to teach special ed was the length of my instruction and the amount of hands on instruction. However, I realize that while these adjustments are required for special education they also make general education classes much more interesting and interactive. I applaud you for your persistence in reflecting on yourself and your teaching practices. Any teacher who considers what he does and seeks to make improvements has already proven their worth. Great job – I would be interested for an update to your blog??? Thanks for sharing.

  64. Joy Heuer

    We are all part of an online course through Brandman university for teacher credentialing. Your blog was one of the assignments : we were asked to read and respond following a rubric. It must feel good to know your approach is so noteworthy. Thanks for sharing some insight to your classroom and you as a teacher.

  65. Amber Cole

    This is an interesting suggestion on how to teach students a new skill. I am a SPED teacher and I do very little demonstrating in front of my students. Meaning, I do little modeling…I do just enough to get them started and then I let the kiddos take off on their own. For some it works really well, those are the survivors. For others, well, they need a lot more lecturing. I break the class up accordingly in small groups with the survivors leading each group by example. I roam the room and make sure all the groups are working cooperatively and learning the new concept. It is difficult to watch the same ones struggle but they are getting better.
    Therefore, I agree with the “Do it first” but I need to talk a little to make sure my kiddos are at least starting in the right direction because if they start in the wrong direction, then it can be really difficult reeling them back in and starting all over.

  66. Lana Sloan

    This response is to fulfill a course requirement –
    I have been teaching special education for the past ten years and have been a student for what amounts to the majority of my life. In addition to teaching, I spent four years at a local community college teaching various Early Childhood courses. In the early childhood world we believe that young children learn through doing. This concept has been true for me personally, which is possibly due to my learning style. However, I believe that all learners can benefit from the do then learn approach.
    If we took a closer look at many of the activities that encourage children to learn prior to formal training, we might be surprised at first, how much the children are learning and how much could be built upon through these experiences. For example, my oldest nephew was giving a backyard t-ball set at his second birthday party. Upon receiving the t-ball set he no longer felt the need to open more gifts. To say the least, he was a baseball fan at a young age and had several years of informal experience with the game before he was on a competitive team. What if his understanding of baseball was later used in school to teach him physics, or psychology (team approach) or math (statistics). I think the lesson would have a greater impact on him.
    I would welcome the opportunity to work in a school willing to take on this approach with the proper supports and hands on opportunities for students. I think that whenever students can get their hands on things, rather building, taking apart or exploring, they are learning.

  67. Diane B.

    Yes, I am responding as a student in a credential program, too.

    Your “Do It First” idea would work well for the emotionally-disturbed teens I teach at a non-public school. True, we teachers must follow the state curriculum, but with students who have emotional issues on the mind, a JOLT is needed to bring them out of their obsessive thoughts and into the lesson-at-hand. It is very difficult for me to rearrange sequential content, and my schedules are upset enough by sudden calls for students to get medications, see their therapists, go on restroom runs, etc. Lectures are constantly disrupted. Therefore, I have to teach in sound bytes and time bytes…and attention bytes, as many students have ADHD. So, I pepper my literature and history lessons with examples from life, stories from my teaching assistant, character voices and questions to students…and illustrations on the board. (I was an illustrator in my previous incarnation, pre-computer clip art.) Lectures, therefore, are never pure lecturing. I know I always learned more from entertaining teachers, because my mind snapped to attention, I was happier, and I had a way to recall the class and the material later.

    There is no time in a 55-minute period to lecture for twenty minutes solidly without losing a teen audience of emotionally-disturbed students. If I ask students to “be” Napoleon, Peter the Great, or Tom Sawyer, however, they turn on the movements and dialects and bring the lesson to life. Some even volunteer to play Aunt Polly, Sid or Becky…and these are boys with probation officers. Amazing.

    Teaching all core principles up front especially doesn’t work for the arts. The very reason most people want to take the art courses is because they LEARN this way (in visual, spatial, tactile, auditory or kinesthetic styles), and are excited to be away from classes that are taught in or which require styles too frustrating for them. I even let students emote, then show paintings like “The Scream” to connect feelings to positive artistic expressions.

    In my art elective class, the Do-It-First becomes the anticipatory set, the modeling, and the activity. Students get to watch me, then use my personal professional art tools (they love this, and quickly learn to ask for vine charcoal, 4B pencils, kneaded eraser, palette paper, fan brush etc. by name) before we discuss theory or take tests. The text has colorful examples, but I also bring my own slides or art pieces so they can see more than a printed page. Additionally, I extend each concept over several days, so students can fail at sketch or practice stage, watch what peers are doing, then produce and understand by day two or three (when I provide the more expensive paper or canvas. Students only get bond to crumple when first trying.). By the time we get to a quiz, the students have practiced all the art elements.

    Videos of art and artists, trips to galleries and museums, and props (some edible) like candy, plastic fruit, costumes and still life objects enliven the class, and provide a chance to move (not the still life) and touch (not the museum works) a bit. I really throw the students for a loop the first day, by telling them they have to draw without looking at the paper (blind contour). This immediately teaches them to really look at their subjects and not GUESS at details. From that day on, they look more at their subjects!

    Maybe I am not as dramatic as my art teacher in the ’60s, who set up a mini-living room in the class, had a painted toilet as a still life on a table top, and brought in a real pig’s head from the butcher shop (which he mounted in a glassed hall display, with a hamburger shop crown on it. It started to thaw…gross…but you see what I mean. I still remember, and laugh about, Mr. E.’s still life arrangements.), but at least I try to stir it up a bit in the 2000s. My candy spheres, cones, chocolate kisses, discs, cubes, and trapezoids (Chunky) are a big draw for the lesson on depicting form by shading. Word spreads, and students can’t wait for the lesson on form. I have found this to work especially well with a junk food landscape, a la Salvador Dali.

    I know that I slept through most of my college art history classes: late nights + lights out for slides in class = scrawled notes from hand slipping off page while in sleep mode. So, my students get the hands-on experience first so they can identify with the media, motivations, techniques, errors, refusals and triumphs of the famous artists. They are more attentive once they are curious about how others solved the problems they just faced in my class. I feel excited when students can use their experiences to critique great works of art using appropriate art vocabulary rather than, “That sucks.”

    I truly believe that both of the principles detailed in your blog, Michael, can be combined to draw the students into the curriculum. With music, you have the perfect opportunity; just look at the TV show, GLEE. Just be careful that you don’t lose the ones with short attention spans by waiting to the end of the semester for the meaty, academic part…they may lose the connections by then.

  68. Chad

    I just feel like I have a moral responsibility to to step in here and remind everyone that I have video of Professor Lee in an alleyway performing his Jr. High Drum major routine.

    I’m just sayin’.

  69. Cristina H.

    Perhaps, it’s because I am a teacher of students with severe cognitive disabilities, but I have seen the value of do it first. You may discuss the fact that your students, or as I believe people in general do not have the tolerance for presentations/lectures more than 20 minutes, but my students do not have the tolerance for even a few minutes. I have also noted that information shared with my peer tutors and my classroom staff is utilized better when it is short and sweet.
    I am personally a learner that abhors lectures. I like practical applications. I love the challenge of learning on the job and overcoming obstacles. Personally, I feel that we could give our students much need life and coping skills if we challenge them to think critically and overcome failures. Failure in life is inevitable. What is important is not the failure itself but how we handle ourselves and those around us in those times. What did we learn? If we saw something similar, would we change our approach?
    The data in my own classroom shows that my students have lower scores when they are introduced to an activity that is novel. However, I can see that they are developing skills when a similar activity is presented and they have greater success with repeated trials.

  70. michael Post author

    Don’t blow my cover, Chad. Apparently I’m a serious academic authority now! With this simple blog post, I have the power to … allow dozens of people to complete an online class assignment.

  71. Dinah

    I like the idea of not lecturing students for more than 20 minutes. (I know some adults for whom this should also be a rule.)
    As for the “do-it-first” concept, I work with students who are to shy or not motivated to try a project without some kind of explaination. As an adult with learning disabilities, I want to be sure of the directions before I start a project. But, I love your enthusiasm for working in the classroom. And it is certainly worth discussing in order to motivated our students.

  72. jt

    Hello Michael,
    You will soon be allowing about a dozen more people to complete on online assignment. Should the requirement be removed?

  73. Michelle L

    I am a Middle School teacher for students with Special Needs. I teach students whose range of disabilities can be rated from mild to moderate or severe. I also coach these students whose disabilities are primarily on the Spectrum of Autistic Disorders (ASD). As well, these students show impulsivity which approaches hyperactivity and inattentiveness (ADHD).

    With that in mind, I think that students can only participate in group projects or discussions for under 20 minutes of time. I believe this since I see how uninvested students are when they aren’t contributing in meaningful ways. I feel that many more students would be engaged if they were to feel that they had a “voice.” But otherwise, if the students are expected to listen alone, I feel that they need to be told what to listen for (selecting for content or meaning) cause otherwise with my students they get off task and pull the minutia.

    I often feel that students are given far too much information on why we go to school (teacher directed their lives) instead of letting the students figure out some of life – this falls under the operating within the boundaries of uncertainty. In fact, what struck me (resonated) with me was that students were given chances to experiment on their own and allowed to fail. When teaching students with Special Needs (or it really applies to Nursing too), it is really important to give the students time to practice the skill, check on their understanding, and give some corrective feedback.

    But, students in Special Education are accustomed to someone doing the work for them and or giving them the answers. This always seemed like giving them the fish or giving them a really short day of fishing. I feel that that is cheating them out of the real experience of learning how to fish (of course said in a metaphor). They really don’t get the chance to wait all day in cold water for the fish to bite. They won’t learn to adjust the bait- make switches and come up with good alternatives not always mapped out for them. Or, it refers to a potentially really, really, really not persevering crowd who won’t be able to stick with a task until Mastery. And as teachers, we are supposed to be teaching until Mastery of the skill- just, here’s the haps, noone really teaches the teachers how to get to Mastery. We have some “assessments” that help us test for skill Mastery of Spelling or Math Facts, but not so much for real life.

    So, while the new push is to get the students to learn “critical thinking” skills, it seems like the best we can do is slip it in with projects (formal term is embed- kind of a trick that mothers use to hide vegetables in pasta sauce) and hope that the students caught the formal message while tinkering away at the project. I recently worked on a project that a para invented. I found the teachers helping the students and doing most of the work for them – another words, it was unstructured time and behaviors cropped up. This reinforced the wrong message – goof off and watch others working. And the more others watch you work, the more they become critics. So, while I support and believe in active hands on learning, I am still in a tough place as an educator since we are supposed to lists Standards galore, Objectives tied to the Standards, and goals again tied to the Standards and Objectives, and all of that is tied to the in class assignments plus homework. So, the formal end of answering to “what is it you are doing with the class, and can anyone off the street tell this upon entering the room without being told since its on the WhiteBoards,” is still at odds with this.

  74. Melissa T.

    I am a middle school teacher, who works with students that have mild disabilities. I came from an elementary school and am used to the 5 minute lecture with my students with special needs. So, on a strange note, I am working up to my 20 minute lecture. I agree with your quote, “I think it (20 minute lecture) represents the upper limit of my students’ attention span, and rather than fighting it, I’ve decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.” When teaching students with special needs, it is a struggle to embrace the limit of attention spans, but it is something that is so necessary for learning to take place.
    I also thought the “‘do first, understand later’ plan” was fascinating. First, I need to get more comfortable with the unstructured process before I expect my students to. I also feel like students with special needs require structure in some form. I think in due time it would be an interesting balance to take on.
    I like the thought of getting your students curious about learning, and ideally being curious about what you think they should know! As an eternal optimist myself, I think these changes WILL make a difference in how your students learn.

  75. Jennifer Yi

    I agree with your 2 philosophies. I would not want to lecture for more than 20 minutes either. Even as a listener, it’s hard to sit through a lecture without any breaks. I think majority of is would find it useful listen and take a break to absorb all the information. The speaker will lose the listeners because our mind tends to shutdown when there’s too much coming at them at once. I really liked your approach “do first, understand later” plan. I kind of do this approach in my classroom with the little ones. For example, if we are doing a lesson on Ladybugs, we talk about the lifecycle of ladybug and a brief description on what they look like, what they eat, and etc. Then, I go into more depth about each sub-category. I think this gives the students to absorb what is going to be expected from them at the end of the whole lesson. I really like the examples you gave because I wouldn’t have understood the whole concept without them. I love the idea of tricking the students into being curious. In my experience, I noticed that students are more engaged in a lesson when they are curious. And engagement leads to them learning what is being taught. Thank you for sharing.

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