Simplest is not always best

According to Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, teachers should teach everything in the simplest, most straightforward way possible.

I just can’t do that.

Yesterday I was explaining to my fresh crop of AP Macro students the different types of economic resources: land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship. Sure, I could have given them quick definitions and a few practice questions — which kind of resource is oxygen? what about oxen? — but that’s so boring.

So instead, I always interject a quick game: What can you make with just land and labor?

In second hour yesterday, here’s how it played out.

Student: “You could make candles.”

Me: “How?”

Student: “You could get animal fat.”

Me: “OK, so assuming you could get animal fat, what are you going to put it in?”

Student, now smiling: “Oh, uh, your hands.”

Me: “And you’re going to heat it how? Wait for lightning?”

By now the students are all engaged, laughing, trying to think of other possibilities. We didn’t even get to the wick, or how you’d light the candle afterward.

Did it make them think about resources? Yes. Did it make them think, specifically, about how we use capital? Yes. Did it give them a moment of fun? Yes.

I get that we shouldn’t waste precious instructional time. But a few minutes spent encouraging divergent thinking, student participation and laughter are definitely worth it.

According to current brain research reported in the ASCD publication The Motivated Brain, brain-friendly pedagogy includes “the integration of play and joyfulness” as well as “the importance of collaboration and social interactions.”

High-engagement strategies promote dopamine release, and dopamine is what encourages us to take on challenges. “Dopamine has more to do with increasing motivation, focus and attention than enhancing pleasure,” according to The Motivated Brain.

Like most things about teaching, this requires balance. We couldn’t dwell on the “land + labor” question all hour — we had to move on to talking about production possibilities frontiers and opportunity cost calculations.

But giving students a little freedom to think creatively, talk and laugh as part of their learning is essential, even if it isn’t the most efficient means.