What Do Students Think Of Your Class?
by Terry Heick
Google is the company that has become its own verb.
They’re also challenging Apple with their Android mobile operating system (though to be fair, they’re unlikely to catch them anytime soon), not to mention their aggressive entry into new digital markets, from Google Fiber to the Chromebook. They have an online productivity suite (Google Docs), the most successful media distribution model in mankind’s history (YouTube), the global standard for email (Gmail), and a score of other more minor products.
They make more money than they could ever spend, and can seemingly do what they please from their Mountain View, California headquarters, where billion-dollar patent lawsuits barely cause a ripple. But they’re still finding their way with brand; their Google Doodles are about as close as you’ll get to some semblance of identity, and it’s a challenge to get a feel for what Google is. Search? Data? Mobile? The cloud?
Technology in general?
Google is all of those things on a functional level, but in terms of identity, it’s slightly less precise as they sort out their identity moving forward. Identity in competitive landscapes requires knowing who your competition is, for starters. This is something Google may still be trying to understand themselves, perhaps in part because they have few direct competitors.
What this all of this mess means to your classroom could be significant.
Just as product and service have a kind of identity (often referred to as a ‘brand’), so does your classroom–whether you plan for it or not. What is the perception of your classroom? What do students most frequently “do” in your classroom? If someone was watching through a glass window, what would they see? If someone could listen in, whose voice would be heard most often?
Is the class dominated by you—are you your classroom’s identity? Your personality? That’s “Miss____ class.” Or, “I love Mr._____ class!” Maybe you’re charismatic and your students love you. You’ve become the face of the class itself. Is this what you want? It might be. Just asking.
Is the content area itself—’math’–the face? American Lit, Psychology 101, etc.
Is it how challenging or fun the class is? This class is hard; that’s the takeaway more than anything else? Struggle?
Maybe the cool presentations? The decorations on the walls? The technology in the lessons?
While you juggle a million things–standards, proficiency, research–the students are mercifully ignorant of most of that. In your class, they see a grade, a credit, or an opportunity, when they need something else to look for and hold on to. You’re essentially creating a face for what students will experience in your classroom, and it’s often communicated in directly and indirectly in equal parts: through signs and tone, message and implication, content and non-content.
It should be a message that is informative without being dry, brief without being too vague.
3 Lessons For Establishing Your Classroom’s Identity
Lessons #1: Identity matters
One immediate lesson is that identity matters. A lot.
Machiavelli was right. Perception—in the public domain–is more important than reality. How you’re perceived, and how your school, grade level, content area, and course are thought of, while possibly not be ‘true,’ are all that really matters. More than anything else, your identity must be unmistakable and accessible.
The big ideas in your curriculum, your tools of classroom management, the opportunities for voice and choice and others all contribute here, but if they don’t all coagulate into a neat little icon of identity, you’re costing yourself engagement and credibility with students.
Lesson #2: Provoke Emotion
If there isn’t a strong emotion associated with your classroom that can lead to learning, you don’t have an identity–or not one that’s compelling, anyway. And if you do, it’s impotent and forgettable.
At the intersection of emotion and identity is really a matter of tone—and that tone is everything. Where that tone comes from isn’t easy to pin down. It starts with the relationship between the teacher and the students, and what kind of fiber that’s made of. How you choose, package, and refine content plays a role as well. How do you churn standards into viable curriculum that the students notice?
That’s a matter of identity.
Ideally, that identity will be grounded in curiosity and support, where an authentic need-to-know leads to curiosity, which leads to learning facilitation, which leads to a collaborative layering of student knowledge, all colliding to create the right content at the right time, with the right tone, in a way that honors the learner.
But on a larger scale, that tone and emotion must be a more immediate connection—not learner–>teacher–>content, but rather learner–>content—>application, where the teacher is simultaneously embedded and out of the way, central and peripheral.
If the classroom is a stage and the whiteboard a microphone, you are the identity, for better or for worse. If there aren’t immediate, charged connections between learner and content that absolutely vibrate, the onus is back on the teacher to entertain, play Jedi mind-tricks, do cartwheels, and enforce compliance.
And like that, the tone—and the larger identity of your room, course, and craft—change for the worse.
Lesson #3: Accessibility comes first
One of the functional lessons of establishing a classroom identity is how it distills complexity into simplicity. There are hundreds of ways to “spin” a product. Take Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS. What makes it desirable to users is a complex collision of user-interface design and clever marketing, factors Apple spends tens of millions of dollars a year to refine.
But more than anything else, identity must be accessible to the end user. In the process of establishing that identity–that brand–the product is ultimately changed. Not simply how that product is perceived, but how it is understood and used. Steve Jobs was clear about the role of brand way back in the 1990s when Apple was, while a top 5 brand in the world, still in transition from Macintosh.
“This is a very complicated world. This is a very noisy world. We’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear of what we want them to know about us.”
What will your students know about your classroom? What can they expect and trust? And how have you made that identity accessible? How do they know?
Lesson #4: Identity is the product of an ecosystem
Identity doesn’t just happen. Rather, it’s the result of execution.
How intentional that execution is dictates how controllable the identity becomes. The assessment design, technology integration, grouping strategies, time management, and a dozen other factors combine to engender an identity that your students pick up on in the first week of school. Perhaps even the first day.
The lesson here is that though you may hang pop culture posters, embed snarky clip-art, and play music while students enter the classroom, those factors only begin to contribute to mood, which contributes to atmosphere, which begins to contribute to identity but isn’t all the way there.
An identity is the product of an entire ecosystem of factors: your natural personality, your personal educational philosophy, your relationship with other staff members, your grading system, your insistence on—and definition of—rigor and authenticity, and so on.
Identity must be singular, but what produces it–and its effects–can’t be.
In the end, the most important lesson is for you to control the perception of your classroom. It has been said that learners may not remember much about what you teach them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. That’s identity.
Ask an Apple lover what they love so much about their latest device, and they’ll likely have a hard time coming up with a compelling argument based on logic or function. They simply ‘like it’; they love participating ‘in’ it. Philosophically, that is marketing and a consumer culture triumphing over basic human logic, but that’s another topic altogether.
Marketing agencies can concoct powerful identity that can make sheep of us all, from the cars we drive to the logos on our shoes. Even the neighborhood you live in is a matter of identity. ‘Who’ you are, as opposed to a structure to live in on a piece of land.
And there are lessons to be learned here. If you can make your content area have cultish appeal by creating a vibrant and inviting identity for your classroom, well, then you’re halfway towards a personalized learning experience. You’ve given the students a place to start, and something they can trust. They will hear about your classroom even when they’re not in it. So will parents.
Word will spread.
At that point, you will have opened the door to the infinite complexity of what you teach and how they will learn it. The residue there, because of how you spin and teach and push and create–that’s something they’ll carry with them long after they leave your classroom.
*previously published at TeachThought.com