As teachers, we love creating “aha” moments for our students. These can happen when our students first understand a math problem or when we point out a theme in a literature story that connects to them personally. I feel a jolt of energy when my students’ eyes light up with a new realization or when I experience an aha moment myself.
Recently as an adjunct professor, I was sitting in an orientation meeting at Cornerstone University. A psychology professor who was leading the meeting introduced a human psychology observation called the Zeigarnik Effect. Essentially, it describes how a person will remember an unfinished task more easily than a finished one.
The speaker described it through this analogy. A waitress will remember an order like the drink a person likes or the food they choose. However, once the order is complete and the tab paid, the waitress is likely to forget the order and the people at the table. Why did she forget? Because the task is finished. This was an idea that I have not thought of before in this way, but it made a lot of sense to me.
How does this concept apply to us as teachers and leaders at our schools? Many of us were taught to have a beginning, middle, and end to our lessons. In other words, we thought it was important to close out our lessons neatly. The Zeigarnik Effect’ suggests that we reconsider. While we don’t necessarily want to leave loose ends, we do want students to see connectedness between lessons.
Our school days are often broken into disjointed segments. Not only do we fail to make connections between our subject areas, sometimes we miss opportunities to connect the lesson to anything beyond itself.
In this post, I want to briefly discuss four ways that we can increase connectedness for our students and help them see the value and impact of what they are learning. We can make connections to their Christ-centered worldview, point out how the lesson connects to other lessons and units, show how reflecting can be used to make these connections, and communicate connections with parents to help cement the learning in the students’ lives.
First, connectedness guides our students to see how our lessons fit into a Christ-centered worldview. Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The quote suggests that we need to remind our students of what we are training them for. We are showing students how to think, process, read, write, and solve problems so that they can use them for God’s Kingdom purpose. We are training them to notice problems in the world and fix them for Jesus. Stephen Covey reminds us to “begin with the end in mind.” So as teachers creating lessons, how can we connect the lesson to God’s story? How does it fit into creation, fall, redemption, and restoration?
Another way to show connectedness is to show how our subjects, units, and lessons build on each other. Often, teachers (including myself) treat lessons or units as silos. Instead, we should practice “activating prior knowledge.” Asking open-ended questions at the end of the class period and then starting the next day’s class with a topic from the previous day helps fulfill the idea of the Zeigarnik Effect.
Piaget’s schema theory suggests that when students connect with something they have learned in the past, they can more easily understand something new. For example, when teaching about fractions, having students think about the pizza they ate on Friday night gives them a reference point in their own prior experience. The more teachers get to know their students, the more they are able to bring experiences from their students’ lives into their lessons as connection points.
Reflection is another way to build connectedness. Not only do we connect to prior knowledge, but we also reflect on what we learn and how it connects to the bigger picture. In their book Learning and Leading with Habits of the Mind, Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick explain the value of reflection: “Reflection has many facets. For example, reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our own growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced, however, when we ponder our learning with others.”
Reflection helps students see the value and implications of what they have learned. This practice is not something that many students do naturally. Reflection needs to be scaffolded, modeled, and guided by the teacher. Providing specific leading questions and giving enough time to think and process is necessary for quality reflection.
Finally, we invite parents into the learning process. Christian schools often talk about partnering with parents but, in reality, we often work parallel to each other. But it is the parents who know their child wholly. They know their student’s history, experiences, strengths, and struggles. How powerful is it when we partner with parents to make the connections between what we are doing at school to their child’s individual life.
For example, when studying conflict resolution in literature, students could ask their parents about any positive experiences with conflict resolution. This conversation takes the idea from just being what is happening to characters in a story at school to being something that happens in real life and can be applied in their own relationships. Teachers can engage parents by giving students questions to ask parents or by sharing student work with parents to reflect on with their children. Parents like to see evidence of student learning, especially learning that intersects with faith.
My “aha” moment challenged me to think about how we are teaching. Are we providing enough connections for our students? The Zeigarnik Effect highlights the importance of showing connectedness through activating prior knowledge, prompting reflectiveness, and bringing parents along in the learning process. If we are helping students make authentic connections to their lessons and their lives, we will not be asked, “When am I ever going to need to know this?” As Christian educators, we are charged to integrate faith into all areas of our teaching and to reveal the interconnectedness of the created world. Finding connections is a powerful way to engage both the students and the parents in this endeavor.