Creating the Need to Know

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Creating the Need to Know blog

You’ve probably learned in college that you need to start your lesson with a hook.   Of course that’s easier for some lessons than others.  Unfortunately, it’s also easy to hook your students with a really cool attention-getting activity, only to have the rest of the lesson fall flat.

What you need to strive for in every lesson you teach is “creating the need to know.”  I learned this as a student intern from a well-written article that I’ve long since misplaced.  It has been one of the most critical pieces of information that I have put to practice in my many years of teaching.

Creating the need to know goes beyond the hook.  Here’s how it works.  Let’s suppose that I am going to teach a lesson on plants.  Younger kids may find this exciting, especially if they are going to get to plant seeds of their own.  Junior high kids will likely tell you “We learned/did  that in___________ grade.”  High school students will do the same.  The real trick is to put a different spin on the plant lesson  and make the case for why this information is absolutely essential to them.

Think of yourself as being a salesman.  You must give a reason for students to want your product!  Sometimes this takes a little acting on your part.  One of my favorite lessons is “Is it Alive?”  See the activity here.   I embellish this activity by telling the students that I have found something in my bathroom drain that behaves suspiciously, and I am wondering if they have ever seen anything like it.  Could it be alive, I wonder.  (The whole point of the lesson.) Pretending not to know whether it could be dangerous, I put on latex gloves, science goggles, and a mask over my mouth and nose.  I recommend that  the front row of students back up a safe distance from this unknown “creature.”  Of course this causes an uproar which is exactly what I want!

Some students refuse to breathe the air around my desk and ask to move to the back wall of the classroom.  Some students hold their hands over their mouths and noses.  It is actually very exciting.  I go to another room and return with a Petri dish with an “organism” in it.  I then put it on the overhead projector.  It swims, spins, eats pencil shavings, then appears to die in the light of the projector (It is light sensitive, I tell them).  I ask them if it is alive.  An interesting conversation ensues, and eventually we list the eight characteristics of living things on the board.  This is the information we use to assess whether it is living or non-living.

At this point the students are  totally engaged.  They are quite concerned that this was found in my bathroom drain and wonder if my family is in danger.  So much conversation is generated that a strong memory for this lesson is made.

And the reason they want to know what is in that Petri dish?  I have created the need to know.  They need to know if my family is in danger.  They need to know whether or not they have been exposed to an unusual life form.  We talk about the scientific method.  How do scientists identify these things?  How do we know if anything is alive or not?

You are probably thinking that you cannot do this when teaching math facts, or parts of a triangle, or subject/verb agreement.  But with a little creativity you will be able to come up with some great ideas.  Ask yourself…why would I want to listen to this lesson?   What would a teacher have to do to get me to become interested?

Use humor, suspense, competition, shock (not a bad kind), surprise, and anything else (with good judgment) that will make the information you have to deliver so compelling that students will sit up and take notice.  Sometimes I even lean forward and whispered. There’s an old saying, “People will believe anything if you whisper it!”  I have found this to be true.  Use whatever means you can to create excitement or suspense.

During your first year you will not be able to made every single lesson dramatic.   But you can create the need to know for all lessons.  Give your students a purpose for learning that meets a need in their lives today.  As you build your files of great lessons, creating the need to know will become second nature.

You may be wondering whether or not I come clean about the mysterious creature from my bathroom drain.  Some years I do.  Some years I don’t (if the students don’t ask.)  Of course if anyone has a legitimate concern that their health has been put at risk, I go ahead and tell them what I was using.  Whether I reveal the secret or not, it makes a great memory!  And they can generally repeat the eight characteristics of living things for quite awhile afterwards–which was exactly my goal!