Sometimes life’s most important lessons come from being shown what NOT to do. Such a lesson came to me courtesy of my seventh-grade history teacher, who announced on our very first day that “school is not supposed to be fun.”
My Teacher, the Drill Sergeant
“I am an army brat,” Mrs. Wood declared, marching back and forth, high heels clonking the floor, hair pulled tight up on her head, her black pant suit stiff as a drill sergeant’s uniform.
She promised that her class would not be fun, and by God she was true to her word. But she also assured us we would learn a lot, and told stories of the many students who returned years later to thank her for all the knowledge gained under her iron fist.
I was not one of those students.
We Clashed Instantly
Even though I was a fellow army brat, we could not have been more different. I had long hair, I was weird, I talked too much and usually out of turn.
We clashed, literally, from the very first moment. During her introductory lecture I yawned and looked at the clock. I didn’t mean to — it just happened. But she caught me and snapped, “If you’re bored already, I’ve got news for you — there are 40 minutes left in this class!”
She Taught the Facts, and Nothing But the Facts
As I recall, the bulk of our activity consisted of constructing elaborate timelines. You took a sheet of typing paper (as it was then known), positioned it vertically and drew a line down the center. Along either side of that line you wrote in dates and events from an assigned period of history, working your way down the page.
When you got to the bottom, you attached another page with Scotch tape and continued on (and on and on).
The highest grades inevitably went to the kids with the longest timelines. I’d scour the textbooks for every possible event to cram onto mine. I might get up to 10 or 12 pages. Then others would come in with 20- or 30-page timelines.
I was used to getting As and a few Bs, but to Mrs. Wood my timelines (and I) were decidedly average or below.
Dates, Times and Other Trivia
I’m sure we did other things in that class, but the timelines are almost all that I remember. Of course, what was IN those timelines is entirely forgotten. When was the Stamp Act enacted? And who cares, anyway?
I cannot think of a more trivial exercise than memorizing the dates of events. Does it really matter which days the First Continental Congress met? Shouldn’t we focus on what they actually accomplished? Which, sadly, I don’t even know. (I blame her.)
There is Nothing Wrong With Fun
Compare that type of learning to books like Founding Brothers and the documentaries of Ken Burns, which bring history alive with stories about great characters and timeless conflicts.
In other words, they make learning fun.
Now is it unfair to criticize a woman who probably earned her teaching certificate in 1930? Perhaps.
And is it unrealistic to hold up an Emmy-winning filmmaker as a standard for ordinary people? Absolutely.
But from what I’ve observed attending business events and conferences, the Mrs. Wood approach to education did not just fade away with her retirement. I continue to see dull, lifeless presentations all the time.
Expertise is Not Enough
I think one of the biggest problems is that speakers are often chosen based purely on their subject matter expertise, their reputation or their job title.
But these days that’s not enough. Attention spans are lower than ever, and we have a world of ready distraction right at our fingertips. We’re all watching TED Talks and great TV.
Audiences simply demand more. Information is not enough. Data doesn’t stick. As Kurt Cobain sang, “Here we are now, entertain us.”
That doesn’t mean you have to be superficial or shallow. Again, look at Ken Burns. You can combine information and entertainment.
Lessons for Educators, Trainers, Presenters and Others
When your audience walks into the room, a good portion of them are expecting and dreading the typical Death by PowerPoint. But you can choose to surprise and delight them and leave them wanting more.
They will be SO grateful. And maybe they won’t write a peevish blog post about you decades later.