Thus sayeth Bruce Moyer, a North Carolina Real Estate Instructor, in a recent issue of Dearborn Real Estate Education’s newsletter. Before you respond “Keen grasp of the obvious,” the context for his statement is an attempt to answer the question “Are students’ attention spans shrinking?” I rather enjoyed the way he handled the question. A short interpretation of his answer is that he renders the question somewhat invalid by pointing out that today’s younger adult students have grown up learning differently. As an elementary/middle school substitute teacher, I can attest to the fact he’s correct.
One of the sadder comments I’ve heard recently in a real estate class came from a student who said, “I’m so tired of learning…” (She’d been maintaining an aggressive college schedule and some other “learning experiences,” including the real estate sales agent course.)
I wanted to respond, “I’ll bet you’re not tired of learning. I think you’re probably tired of being taught.” That’s more than a semantic difference.
While real estate education is not the only place we see it, the reality is we’ve been very slow to acknowledge the changes in learners and accept what has always been true–an engaged student is a learning student. I think that’s always been true. What’s different is that today’s real estate students are coming to our courses with different learning habits. One of many reasons I love teaching little kids is I get to see those differences in action. But make no mistake–it’s not about age. Kids are just little people who are not so different than us bigger ones. I have seen five-year-olds so engaged in something (reading a book, drawing a picture) they actually lose track of time.
When’s the last time you lost track of time in a real estate class?
Five years ago I announced that I was “giving up teaching.” It was admittedly a play on words, but the point was to explain a shift in my focus to “interactive learning.” I gave a lot of credit for the shift to the kids. I pointed out in the article that if a second grader asks me how to pronounce a word (a sign they are engaged in learning) I don’t just tell them. We work on it together, perhaps by breaking the word down, sounding it out, and considering the context. Those techniques maintain and perhaps increase the engagement and very likely increase the odds the lesson ends up in long-term memory.
So why are we clinging to an outdated real estate model that emphasizes the “sage on the stage” wherein the “best” instructors have the deepest knowledge of real estate law and practice, telling the students the answers? In fairness to sages everywhere, knowledge of the subject is important. I confess I enjoy seeing high ratings and positive comments on my evaluation sheets regarding “knowledge of instructor.” But it shouldn’t stop there.
I was drafted into substitute teaching a second-year Spanish class at our high school last year. As the kids were filing in and taking their seats, one in the first row challenged me. “Mr. Boomsma, do you even know Spanish?” I somewhat surprised myself when I replied, “No, but I know how to teach it. Let’s get started.” We actually had a good class with lots of “interactive” and “self-directed” learning. It was the other end of the spectrum–I was truly acting as the “guide on the side.” The only way I could answer questions was to work with the student on finding the answer.
Ultimately, being a sage or a guide is not an “either or” decision–it’s what works best for all the stakeholders. One of my public school teacher colleagues recently shared with me how she used a bandaid to explain to her class that she would be doing her very best to work with the different needs of each student and she expected those students to both understand and help her. As an advocate for schools and kids, I wish more people could see what many of today’s teachers are doing and some of the challenges they are facing.
She teaches fourth grade so if I live long enough I may see some of her students in a real estate class. I hope by then we’ve figured this out. Today and tomorrow’s learners are different and those differences need to be met with changes in instructor skill sets and teaching strategies.
In Dearborn’s Real Estate Education survey, “shrinking student attention spans” was rated “very challenging” by 31% of the respondents and an additional 56% classified it as “somewhat challenging.” But is that the real challenge? We all want success. In order to achieve it, we may have to give up teaching and focus on learning. That means we are going to need facilitation skills and an ability to introduce different classroom and learning management strategies. Our students’ mental abilities aren’t shrinking–they are learning differently and probably better. The challenge is whether or not we will expand to accommodate that.