Let Me Entertain You... by Bob Sprankle

The title for this entry comes from the song that's been stuck in my head since summer started, and I expect, will be stuck there for the rest of the summer: "Let Me Entertain You." You see, my daughter is currently in a local production of "Gypsy," and even though she doesn't sing the song in the show, she sings it plenty around the house! It's a great song, don't get me wrong, but it's a "sticky one". So, you'll have to forgive me as I use it to try and tie my thoughts together this week. I have no choice. Resistance is futile.

Here's another "sticky" tune that can get stuck in one's head. Tell me if you've heard this one before:

"KIDS these days!"

If you're in education, I'm sure this is one mantra you've heard repeated around the school, in the teacher's room, perhaps even in front of the "kids". I've worked in many educational settings, and I've heard it repeated at least as many times as I've heard my daughter sing "Let Me Entertain You," though perhaps not as melodiously.

Of course, "KIDS these days!" is just the beginning of the tune. It goes off from there in infinite and variable (yet predictable) ways:

  • "KIDS these days just don't know how to think!"
  • "KIDS these days expect everything to be done for them!"
  • "KIDS these days don't know how to work hard!"
  • "KIDS these days expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter!"
  • "KIDS these days only know how to 'copy and paste'!"
  • "KIDS these days just want to be entertained!"
  • "KIDS these days, KIDS these days, KIDS these days... Yadda, Yadda, Yadda...

Catchy little ditty, isn't it?

This week, I've been at NECC09. I know what you're thinking... "Uh, wasn't that last week, dude?" Yes it was, but I'm now watching it online at ISTEVision (and you can too!) because I didn't make it to DC when it happened in real time.

2 presentations I want to commend to you are:

  1. "Transforming Schools Into 21st-Century Learning Organizations" by Tom Carroll, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
  2. "Teaching the Digital Generation: Understanding Digital Kids" by Lee Crockett, InfoSavvy Group

Both presentations will help you get that tune that's stuck in your head out of there --- not "Let Me Entertain You" (there's no hope for that), but the "KIDS these days..." one. Hopefully, they'll help get that tune out of being stuck in your school as well. Because, let's face it: that tune is really just a flimsy excuse to not change. It's an interesting phrase, "KIDS these days," because it acknowledges that kids today are in fact different. Usually, however, the recognition of difference stops there with the students (almost as an... accusation?), and the conversation doesn't continue to recognize that the whole world is different. It stops short there, because if the conversation went further, it would start to tear at the very fabric of reality and reveal the horrifying truth that even though students are "different" these days, and the world is in fact very different, schools remain pretty much the same. (Tom Carroll hits us over the head with this when he asks the question in his presentation: "If we didn't have today's schools... Would we create today's schools?")

I believe there should be a "song" that starts with "KIDS these days..." It just should head off into new lyrical territory than what I've heard over my 20-some years of working in education. It should go something like... "Kids these days are different learners because we live in a different world." Tom Carroll calls it the "Learning Age;" a "Learning Culture." The problem is, however, our schools continue to be "teaching organizations" rather than "co-created learning studios in networked learning environments."

I've heard teachers say that they can't engage kids because students sit there with "TV eyes" waiting to be entertained in the same way as they are from all the TV, video games, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, cellphone, texting, etc. exposure. The number one "KIDS these days!" tunes that I hear out there is that "Kids these days just want to be entertained."

It's exactly the opposite. WE are the TV generation (I count myself in that group). We we're trained to "sit and git" placidly (perhaps cultured through television exposure, but certainly reinforced in many traditional school settings). The "kids today" want more than that. They've been raised with tools that include them, that allow them to build and direct the outcome, and then mash it up to create something absolutely brand new (see Jenkins for more on this).

Some teachers fear that they need to "put on a show" in order to engage kids. If we look at one episode of iCarly and broke down all the hours that go into putting together just that episode, we'd quickly realize that ONE teacher could never do that alone, with every single lesson, and will NEVER be able to compete with that kind of entertainment.

But that doesn't matter. It's not the job of the teacher to entertain. The song could never be "Let Me Entertain You," but needs to become, "Let Me Let YOU Entertain YOU."

This is where the "eye-rolling" will start because we still think of entertainment and learning as polar opposites. (The evidence is in all those "KIDS these days!" jingles.)

An amazing book to read to help retrain ourselves to "see the light" is The Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen. In the preface, Linus Torvalds (you know... the guy who started Linux) talks about "Linus' Law" which states that:

"all of our motivations fall into three basic categories... 'survival,' 'social life,' and 'entertainment.'

I'll let you read the book to convince you of this law, but it's that last part that most people will get stuck on. Entertainment? That sounds like a lazy, spoiled thing to be motivated by, doesn't it? Linus offers up an excellent example to counter this: Albert Einstein:

"Einstein wasn't motivated by survival when he was thinking about physics. Nor was it probably very social. It was entertainment to him. Entertainment is something intrinsically interesting and challenging."

"Kids these days..." just need to have learning be something that is "intrinsically interesting and challenging." It's what we've always needed. Yay for them to point it out to us by no longer wanting to go to schools that are a hundred light years away from being even half as interesting as the rest of their world is.

Solutions? There are plenty. But there's really only one litmus test: if we don't have students that are showing up at our schools early, banging on the door to let them in so they can get learning, then we don't stand a chance.

Rather than blaming the tools and experiences that students are using/having outside of school as the reasons students are not engaged within schools, we need to look at those tools/experiences and see how we can make our classrooms as exciting as the competition. It's just good business to stay up with the times.


  • Kids like to build things with their video games? Let kids help build the curriculum.


  • Kids like to be challenged and are kept engaged with increasingly different levels of a computer game? Then our lessons need to take them on a similar journey. Don't know how to do this? Go back to the previous example and ask the kids to build the "quest".

One easy first step to take is to break the traditional mold of keeping students locked in one type of learning modality for extended periods of time (which is still predominantly, "lecture style"). We know the brain likes novelty and change and remembers most information given at the beginning and at the end of an experience. Brain research has shown us how the brain likes to learn with variety; video games illustrate how students like to be engaged with a constantly changing landscape. Changing the pacing or amount of time spent in one learning modality can do wonders for your classroom.

Would you like to see a great example of this? Watch the performance of comedy genius Demetri Martin in his Comedy Central special called "Demetri Martin. Person" (available on Netflix). Watch this master as he breaks the traditional "stand up comedy mold" by constantly changing the landscape of his performance with a perfect pace and timing that keeps the viewer's brain continually recharged and engaged. Nothing "gets old" in the show because just as you think he's going to do "stand-up behind the mic" like most comedians, he's singing you a song, or showing you some drawings, or playing a guitar, and then a piano, and even a movie. As Kathleen C. Fennessy says on her Amazon.com review:

"You get more bang for your buck than just a guy, a stage, and a bevy of zingers."

Martin is a "young" comedian (you've probably seen him on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), so he gets it. He knows all about pacing and making things interesting for "KIDS these days..."

Don't think that you have to be as funny or as talented or as entertaining as Martin in your classroom. You're there to help guide the students in creating their own engaging scripts.

We, the teachers, just need to give our students more bang for their buck and keep them coming back for more.