11 min read

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller

While watching an episode of Big Bang Theory, a humorous sitcom playing out the lives of a group of young, quirky scientists going through the mundane aspects of life, I was struck by a particular exchange between Sheldon Cooper and his ad hoc girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler.

Amy is a brain researcher and demonstrates a strong understanding of human nature. Sheldon is portrayed as a physicist who has many characteristics of an individual on the Autism spectrum, though this is not ever stated directly. One of his characteristics is his inability to recognize social cues and provide empathy in ways common to most of us. During a virtual conversation with Amy, Sheldon shares his confusion and frustration at the poor ratings one of his presentations has received.

As they discuss his failure at engaging his audience with the content he presents, it becomes abundantly clear that Sheldon cannot connect the content to the audience. After unsuccessfully working to lift his spirits, Amy says something very profound regarding the role of an educator when working to convey their content. After his protestations that it is the burden of the audience to engage with the information, Amy goes on to make a very compelling suggestion.

Amy: All right. Have you considered improving your socialization skills, thus allowing you to communicate more effectively with other people?

Sheldon: Isn’t that their burden? I’m the one with something interesting to say.

Amy: Fair enough, but in its essence, teaching is a performance art. In the classroom paradigm, the teacher has the responsibility to communicate, as well as entertain and engage.

Sheldon: I sense that you’re trying to slow-walk me to an epiphany. Would you mind very much jumping to it?

Amy: Perhaps you should consider taking acting lessons. (BOOM! Paradigm shift!)

Embrace Edutainment

I have processed this very concept with many teachers by suggesting they consider using props, jokes and other tools actors use to entertain their audience. It often comes as a surprise concept to them that effective teachers are entertainers as well as educators. “Am I supposed to put on clown outfits with makeup and perform for them?”

I contend that if what you have been doing to engage your students hasn’t been working, why not try performing for them and see what happens. The brave souls who heed the advice and venture into edutainment almost always follow up with me on the successes they have experienced.

Let’s face it, we are competing with the internet and television. All of the veteran educators reading this are probably recalling the millions of times they have used the phrase, “Put your phone away.” Every day our students are inundated with interesting posts and links that are designed to grab their attention and make them into consumers of products and entertainment. Why not tap into that power instead of fighting it?

The Five Characteristics of Edutainment

A professor at Boise state university, Lynette McDougal, identifies five facts about providing Edutainment during your instruction.

  1. It should be educational.
  2. It is important that it be entertaining.
  3. Along with being educational and entertaining, there should be an integrated activity.
  4. To accomplish this, the lesson presented should be adequately matched to the learners abilities.
  5. Lastly, she identifies the importance of understanding that learning occurs when students construct new understandings about their world through exploration, experimentation, discussion and reflection.

What about taking acting lessons?

When you take on the strategy of Edutainment to increase engagement and learning with your audience, it is important to remember the skills you should hone. Much like the example in the episode of Big Bang described above, you could even take acting classes. But short of enrolling at your local acting school, consider these skill sets actors are expected to develop.

Being an actor requires a range of skills, including:

  • Good stage, screen or vocal presence
  • The ability to enter into another character and engage with an audience
  • The ability to memorize lines
  • Good understanding of dramatic techniques
  • Having the confidence, energy and dedication to perform
  • Creative insight

Build an Authentic Educator Persona (Stage Presence)

Be intentional when choosing the version of yourself that you present to students. Your teaching persona should be authentic and tailored to the audience while also honoring who you are at your core. Consider what personality characteristics you can employ that build better connections with your students.

Remember to be genuine, we are not creating a fake character here. Students can smell a rat, so don’t lie. What you are doing is highlighting your behaviors, attitudes and energy that connects with your audience. Watch videos of successful educators and presenters. What aspects of their persona engage your attention? Select attributes you posses and can grow within your own presentation style. Humor, vulnerability (the good kind) and high energy are all a great place to start.

Use Dramatic Techniques

When designing your lesson, consider seeding it with proven dramatic techniques. Use them to build tension during your lesson and then relieve that tension in innovative and interesting ways.

Some examples of dramatic techniques easily used within lessons:

  • Foreshadowing: making reference to something that will be important later in the lesson can peak interest and engagement. Allude to it often and create a sense of mystery. This is best used when initially embedded within the lesson opener.
  • Plot Twists: As students participate in your lessons, having a point at which the information presented suddenly and unexpectedly changes or challenges the way they are thinking can have a profound impact on buy in.
  • The Ticking Clock: This one can be tricky and requires preplanning. The most simple form of the ticking clock I have used is the classroom game of ‘exploding mascot.’ First, you need a school or class mascot that you build concern for. At key intervals in the lesson, the teacher asks higher order questions about the content covered so far with the risk that only a well-thought out answer can help delay the mascot from exploding. Wrong or shallow answers advance an imaginary timer, keeping the class mascot in a high tension situation. If the unwitting character survives the lesson, celebrate with the students.
  • The Cliffhanger: Best used just before a temporary break in instruction (i.e. the end of class for the day or just before lunch), the cliffhanger leaves students wanting more.

Use Engaging Exemplars

Presenting exemplars when introducing a new concept or skill, is also a solid strategy to add to your teaching bag of tricks. Below is a Ted Talk by Nick Fuhrman, also known as Ranger Nick. It is an incredible exemplar of Edutainment. Check out his educator persona — how engaging!

There is science that supports the idea that having fun while learning promotes the acquisition and maintenance of new knowledge. Nick Fuhrman’s persona encourages having fun. How can you tweak your persona to increase how much fun your students are having while they learn?

How to Sell Your Content

While you are exploring how to edutain your students, consider another aspect of entertainment media: engaging advertising. Over the decades, marketing specialists have honed the craft of engaging audiences to buy into products and services using tools that access psychological principles. Why not leverage their research-evidenced practices within the context of getting students to buy into your class culture, content, and the skills you need them to master for success?

Common Advertising Techniques 

Emotional Appeal

Pathos, appealing to the emotions and sense of identity of the audience, is an intensely powerful advertising tool. We have all seen the commercials that use pictures of starving children in appalling conditions followed by appeals to donate money to feed the hungry, provide them with schooling opportunities and provide shoes for their feet. The language and images are used to evoke a deep sense of empathy toward those less fortunate than ourselves.

When you find lesson hooks and examples that appeal to the emotions of your students, engagement often increases. For example, while teaching a lesson on bias during a virtual lesson (eLearning is the norm in the days of COVID-19), you could appeal the student’s current feelings on emotionally charged topics that matter to them, such as social distancing to avoid the spread of illness versus their need for belonging and connection.

A strong lesson hook that uses emotional appeal can initiate student engagement that you can use as leverage throughout the lesson.

Note: It is important that you balance the use of emotional appeal with logical evidence and ethical standards in order to maintain credibility. For a deeper understanding of using rhetoric during instruction, I recommend researching three rhetorical appeals often used in crafting arguments: pathos, ethos, and logos. 

Repetition

I distinctly recall the phone number for the leading accident and injury law firm that was operating in my area in the late 1980s. Why? Their commercials showed the number visually, played the voice of a woman singing the 10-digit telephone number to a catchy tune and repeated these throughout the entire commercial. The commercial itself was repeated across the course of the evening. 

By repeating and highlighting the core content and processes of your lesson in engaging ways, you can increase the students’ retention of the information. 

Promotions and Rewards

Embedding a system of promotions and rewards within your lessons can ignite engagement for students who are more extrinsically rewarded. Get creative, don’t spend a lot of money (or none at all). If you are presenting a unit across time, have the students earn badges as they master new skills. If you are teaching with a piece of literature that has a nifty element of reward within it, mimic that reward. For example, if teaching with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, you could build to an activity where the students earn small candy bars wherein some of them have a ticket under the wrapper that provides the bearer with a highly sought after privilege or reward. 

Bandwagon

Give the students a reason to jump on board or not ‘miss out’ on what everyone else is doing. This builds momentum and appeals to their sense of belonging. Learning what your students are impassioned about may require a little research on your part. Consider the leaders in your classroom (particularly the ones who drive the classroom culture and climate) and find out what their interests are. Cite the students you know are deeply into the interest directly in your lesson opener and empower them to incite interest in their peers. 

For example, I had a student who was into video games. They seemed to be the only thing he thought about day and night. While teaching a lesson on the narrative plot, I used his current favorite video game as the example media to model the plot diagram. The game Halo, and the passion of one student, did more to drive engagement during that lesson than praise and redirection ever could.

In Summary…

Tying it all together, you as an educator have the privilege and responsibility to do whatever it takes, within reason, to entertain, engage and educate your students. Have fun with it. Experiment with advertising strategies and positive rhetoric. Some things you try may fall flat, but much like the growth mindset we ask our students to have, I challenge you to keep at it until you find the style of Edutainment that works for you. Now, go break a leg!

Other Resources:

References:

  1. Big Bang Theory, Season 4, Episode 14
  2. “EdTech 597 Characteristics of Edutainment.” Lynette McDougal: EDTECH Learning Log, 12 May 2013, lynettemcdougal.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/edtech-597-characteristics-of-edutainment/.
  3. “The One Thing All Great Teachers Do.” Nick Fuhrman. TEDx, Posted to YouTube 11 April 2018, youtube.com/watch?v=WwTpfVQgkU0&feature=youtu.be.
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