Joe Ruhl: Teaching Methods for Inspiring the Students of the Future (Transcript)

Joe Ruhl at TEDxLafayette

Full Transcript of Joe Ruhl’s TEDx Talk: Teaching Methods for Inspiring the Students of the Future at TEDxLafayette conference. This event occurred on Saturday, November 22, 2014 at The Civic Theatre, Lafayette.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: teaching-methods-for-inspiring-the-students-of-the-future-by-joe-ruhl-at-tedxlafayette

Joe Ruhl – Teacher, Biology, Genetics, and Science Research courses

I have one of the best jobs in the world, because I get to work with people who are fun, funny, energetic, creative and insightful. They happen to be 14 to 18 years of age. I really do think kids keep a person young and I think that’s probably why when I’m in the presence of adults, I sometimes don’t know how to act, so you’ll forgive me.

So inspiring the students of the future. What really works? 37 years of teaching experience have taught me that two things are needed. Research-based teaching techniques and relationship. Relationship is huge, but we’ll talk more about that later. What I’d like to look at first are the techniques.

I think probably most of us remember the teacher-centered classroom. This is probably what we’re familiar with from our youth. You remember the teacher was up front in the center. The students were in nice neat rows, not allowed to talk to each other. And the teacher, the source of authority, downloaded information to the kids who regurgitated it back up on a test designed to measure how much content they could remember.

Now I have to admit I love lecturing but my students don’t always love it. It does not always inspire. So I was thinking: what really inspires? Years ago, I was doing lunch duty at school, standing in the lunchroom, being visible, watching kids go through the cafeteria line. And as I watched the kids going through the line, it occurred to me they loved having choices. And so I said to myself: maybe that would work in the classroom. Let the kids have choices and so that’s what I did. I converted my classroom to a situation where student choice was a big part of the room along with four other Cs: Collaboration, Communication, Critical thinking, and Creativity.

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Actually over 10 years ago, the National Education Association identified those last four Cs on the list as essential 21st century skills that kids should learn. And I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve added choice to the top of the list, not as a skill for kids to learn but rather as a characteristic of the classroom. By choice, I mean a situation where many learning activities are available to students designed to meet the many diverse learning styles that they have. And the kids love it as much as they love choices in the cafeteria.

Now I think we’re made for learning this way. Imagine our early hominid ancestors out looking for food, don’t you know that finding and tracking that woolly mammoth required critical thinking and problem solving. It definitely required collaboration, teamwork. I mean, you wouldn’t want to do this by yourself. No way. And collaboration required communication.

And then I imagine those people sitting around the campfire at night, reliving the adventures of the day’s hunt, they must have had smiles on their faces when they were retelling the story of the hunt. And I know they smiled when they put those cave paintings up on the wall, because creativity is a uniquely human pleasurable satisfying activity. So I believe our brains are wired for the 5 Cs. And since they’re wired for the 5 Cs that authentic learning will happen when kids are allowed to engage in the 5 Cs. And not just learning but I think kids will enjoy a classroom setup like this and even be inspired in this way.

Now this requires — a classroom set up based on the 5 Cs requires a shift: from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. And this requires a teacher to remove him or herself from front and center becoming more of a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. But this opens up opportunities to not merely teach but to coach, to mentor, to nurture and inspire. And that’s why I love it so much.

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Now timeout, it’s important for me to mention these are not my original ideas. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Remember Plutarch. He said it a long time ago: ‘the mind is not a vessel that needs filling but wood that needs igniting’. And more recently, Albert Einstein: ‘education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think.’

All right. You’re going to have to bear with me. I’m going to get real goosebumply for a minute. One of the absolute most exciting moments of my life, my professional life, was meeting Albert Einstein just a few years ago, changed my life bumping into him in that Wax Museum. What a moment it was!

So I stand on the shoulders of giants — giants like Montessori and Piaget and Dr. Sam Postlethwait who was doing a lot of these things in his biology classes at Purdue University back in the 1960s. I’m a product of the Purdue Biology Department. That’s where I fell in love with biology.

I stand on the shoulders of giants like Tom Watson, Steve Rendek who were doing this back in the 1970s in their high school biology classes. I stand on the shoulders of many giants called elementary school teachers and special ed teachers. So I’m a product of all of those mentors.

So collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and student choice – what does it look like? If I could just share with you briefly the experiences that I’ve tried with this. I’ve taken my ninth-grade biology classes and divided the school year up into two to three-week units. At the beginning of each unit, the students are given a menu of all the smorgasbord activities that are available on the menu. Now this has been challenging because I’ve had to write all of these activities so that no matter what combination of activities a student chooses to do based on their learning styles, and no matter what order they choose to do them in, they’ll still achieve the required objectives for the unit. It’s been fun, it’s been a challenge. But the kids love it. They love having the choice and there are many times when they forget that I’m even in the room. And that’s okay.

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One of the things that is not required — there are two activities normally in every unit that are not required. One is the test at the end of the unit and the other one is the computer tutorial. I’ve taken several summers and written these self-paced interactive computer tutorials that the kids work through. They are designed to take the place of the stuff that I used to lecture on. Kids have told me in private Mr. Ruhl, we like the tutorial. It’s better than your lectures. And that’s okay. That’s perfectly okay, because it’s all about them.

And so if you came to visit my class on a typical day you would see some kids working through the computer tutorials. You would very likely see some kids working on some website activities online. It’s very possible you would see some kids in a corner of the room with headphones on watching a video related to the unit, writing out answers to questions that accompany the video. I’m sure you’d see students doing laboratory activities.

You would probably notice some kids tending to their ongoing science fair projects. And I know for sure you would probably find a group of kids off in another corner around an educational game designed to teach them about some biological concept related to the unit. And you would likely see some kids doing some hands-on, minds-on simulations learning about some other biological phenomena.

I know you would see some kids off in a corner filling out what are called reflection sheets that are designed to get them to think about their learning, self evaluate their efforts, take past knowledge and connect it to new knowledge.

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