What teachers want

This week I presented my first workshop as a College Board consultant.

My task: In six hours at a hotel conference room in Cincinnati, help 10 high school teachers hone their ability to teach AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics or both.

Six hours isn’t much time, let alone for two distinct subjects, and most of the teachers at the workshop were relatively new to AP Econ. It was a daunting task.

What could I possibly do with just six hours?

  • Make sure the teachers really understood basic economic principles, like opportunity cost, decision-making and efficiency?
  • Review strategies for teaching the most-misunderstood concepts on the 2015 AP tests, like deadweight loss and terms of trade?
  • Explain how to use new classroom apps or online resources?
  • Cram them full of as much information as I possibly could?

Like most teachers, I’ve had a few really bad experiences as a workshop participant. Sometimes a presenter (or fellow participant) will hijack a workshop and turn it into a personal diatribe about teaching, testing or politics.

Other times, a presenter will go on and on covering basic concepts, paying no attention to participants’ prior knowledge, or just throwing new technology at us.

The worst is when you show up with specific questions, and the hired presenter ignores them or can’t answer them. I admit – I have occasionally even walked out.

I wanted to be very mindful of not wasting the teachers’ time or money – and giving them what they really needed to help prepare their students for the AP tests in May.

Ultimately, I decided to focus on #2, the strategies for teaching difficult concepts, and it went pretty well. The teachers seemed engaged, asked lots of great questions, and on my “exit slips,” they told me that the content was very helpful to them. “Very informed and engaging,” said one. “Good job covering lots of info,” said another.

They also told me (in a very friendly way) what I could do to make my next workshop better, and there was a common theme:

“It would be nice to see hands on “fun” activities for Macro.”

“Maybe focus more on specific implementation/activities.”

“Maybe add an actual simulation for buying and selling.”

The message was clear: Teachers want activities. Teachers want their classes to be engaging, stimulating and fun. They don’t want to spend all of their time lecturing and testing, but they need help figuring out when and how to use active learning.

The comments made me sad because I love teaching teachers to use simulations in my Minnesota Council for Economic Education workshops, but I had rejected including them here because of the time constraint.

Six hours, right? Who could blame me?

But the irony of it also gave me pause. Time is one of the major reasons teachers don’t use simulations in their classrooms, and that’s a huge mistake. Research has shown over and over again that active teaching strategies result in deeper understanding and longer retention.

Professors Nina Kollars (Franklin and Marshall) and Amanda Rosen (Webster University), writing about college classrooms, say the limited use of simulations is “somewhat of a puzzle” because the literature “is clear on the merits of active learning approaches.”

Simply put, they are worth the time.

I believe strongly in the merits of using market simulations, factory simulations, trade simulations and other hands-on activities in economics. How can I expect teachers to implement successful active learning approaches in their jam-packed courses if I can’t set aside time for an activity during an all-day workshop?

Lesson learned. Students want active learning, teachers want active learning, and active learning works best. We need to just slow down and do it.

Next time, that will start with me.