We all heard about the Southwest Airlines, Flight 1380—the flight that had an engine fail two weeks ago and was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia. One woman was killed as shrapnel flew through a window into the plane after the engine exploded. It had to be a terrifying experience for everyone onboard. Several others were injured before the plane finally touched ground again.
I would like to focus on a little-known fact about this flight.
As passengers took selfies to send to loved ones, we see that many—perhaps most—of the passengers didn’t place their oxygen mask on themselves properly. As the plane descended, oxygen masks dropped from overhead just like they’re suppose to. But photos and videos from the flight show their confusion in this moment of crisis.
They acted like they didn’t quite know what to do.
Wait a Minute. Didn’t Those Passengers Receive Instructions?
In the pre-flight instructions made on a video, airline passengers on every flight hear about what to do in case of emergency. As the video explains the steps to take if the cabin pressure drops, everyone is told that the oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. One script reads this way: “If the airplane loses pressure, oxygen masks will drop automatically. The yellow cup goes around your mouth and nose.”
Most passengers, however, were puzzled about how to put them on correctly.
Who pays attention to that little speech as the plane taxis out to the runway?
What Does This Have to Do with You and Me?
I have long believed that little pre-flight speech is a picture of you and me with our students. Parents, teachers and coaches are lecturing kids on what to do and how to do it all the time. Our problem is—students don’t feel it’s a relevant message for them. The chances of them needing our instructions are remote. Blah, blah, blah.
Our speeches are “just in case”—not—“just in time.”
The fact is, students learn on a need to know basis. It’s not that they don’t appreciate our efforts. They merely feel it’s a hypothetical situation, rather than a real one. Just like that little flight video is highly unlikely to be needed, and most passengers have heard the little speech many times, so it is with our words. We talk from past experiences the students feel are antiquated. We talk from textbooks they feel are irrelevant. We talk from history they feel is not a picture of the future. Our story, they feel, is different from theirs. Just like the safety video that’s shown on flights, passengers read, they watch shows, talk to their seatmate or stare at their phone screen throughout that little speech. Does this sound familiar?
- Fasten your seatbelts. I don’t need that info. I know how to do that already.
- The flight will provide snacks and drinks. I know; you’ll bring them to me.
- The oxygen masks will drop in emergencies. Right. That’ll never happen.
These are the same responses disengaged students have for our typical “lectures.” They assume we are unnecessary because we don’t understand their life, or we aren’t saying anything fresh and relevant. We are redundant and irrelevant.
- I already know what you’re telling me.
- You’ll make sure I have what I need.
- I’ll never face that emergency, but thanks for letting me know anyway.
So, what if we changed our communication?
Moving from Hypothetical to Hyper-Interesting
Since students are like flight passengers, learning on a need to know basis, we must create the need to know. Effective teachers and communicators move rapidly from virtual to real when they speak. Effective math teachers may toss the story problems aside and discuss a real arithmetic issue in the community. Great literature teachers may push pause before the class reads the next novel and offer real-life scenarios. Engaging history teachers may wait to open the textbook until they introduce someone to speak to the class—someone who’s lived through a particular era. They toss out the hypothetical. Below are some simple suggestions to become “real” for your students:
- Open your session with a current event, including commentary in real time.
- Introduce outsiders to students who’ve lived through a similar scenario.
- Utilize a popular show on Netflix or Hulu that addresses your topic.
- Go outside and have them do something as you talk about your subject.
- Leverage a touring exhibit in town to underscore your topic.
- Invite students to get involved in solving a familiar classmate’s problem.
- Show students today’s news headlines and ask how they would handle a current problem if they were in charge.
When my kids were young, I would have them watch the news on TV with me from time to time. I’d ask them to choose one problem reported on that broadcast (either local or global) and then work together to come up with a plan on how to address the issue if they were the leader who had to fix it. Were their plans brilliant? Not always. But we never had a boring conversation about a real-world problem.
And I made no flight attendant speeches at all.
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