Make Room for Excellent Participation (Part 3)

Healthy minds want to participate in meaningful content. Participation is where you find the greatest adventures in learning.

How sweet it is when an instructor wonders, “Am I letting my students participate in significant ways?”

Participation is the third of the four factors of interesting learning environments.

Those factors are:

If you’re like most instructors, you already feel pressed to “cover the material” in a limited time. So how could you possibly make room for participation?

When you do it right, you’ll be glad you did. Let’s look at several ideas for participation that builds interest, which I define as a desire to think.

Laugh in the Face of the Information Ocean

When you’re building a lesson, you don’t have time to sort through all the blogs, e-mails, podcasts, curricula, videos, chats, books, ads, articles, and reports that bloat the Internet. “Knowledge is power,” but we’re all dealing with more information than we can digest. Avoiding false knowledge is half the work.

Most people don’t know that intensive research from the 1960s forward has shown that, regardless of all the talk about advancements in technology and education, teachers don’t allow students to interact with subject matter very much. This begins as early as third grade and continues all the way to the top, because there’s so much to teach!

Don’t be fooled by the information ocean. Interaction is the only way to go.

Get Physical When Possible

Let’s say you’re training 30 new employees to inspect utility poles. On the first day, the trainees are sitting two to a desk. Here are some examples of physical interaction compared to teacher-centered teaching:

  • Interactive: “I’ve placed sections of utility poles on the table in the back. There’s one for every two of you. Please take one to your desk.”
  • Teacher-centered: “Here’s a poster of the different kinds of weakness we find in utility poles.”
  • Interactive: “Use the tools I gave you to check for weakness in the wood.”
  • Teacher-centered: “This picture shows what you will see in most rotting poles.”

Two minutes later

  • Interactive: “We check poles in the field by removing a narrow sample just below ground level. I drilled a one-inch hole in these sections so you can inspect more easily. Now trade your with another team and inspect again.”
  • Teacher-centered: “This picture shows…this one shows… If you look closely, you can see…”

The interactive method may take a little longer, but you reach more hearts and minds when you put the subject matter in your trainees’ hands.

Include Cognitive Interaction

The physical participation was obviously designed to create a desire to think in the trainees. The brain is involved in physical activity, but my examples emphasized physical participation. Now I’ll highlight the cognitive.

  • Interactive: “All the sections have a weakness, except for three. Yours could have rot or bug infestation.”
  • Teacher-centered: “Notice how the wood has changed in these two photos. It could be due to standing water in winter and spring.”

The interactive version is stronger. By including three good pole sections, the teacher caused the class to inspect more carefully. Any time you use this technique with any content and let the class know it, their minds go on high alert.

  • Interactive: “Pressure-treated wood has a certain sound and feel when it weakens. Let’s have the inspectors in the back of the room go first. Tap your section, and the rest of us will decide whether we need to replace that utility pole.”
  • Teacher-centered: “Utility poles can look perfectly fine and yet be dangerously close to falling during the next blast of wind. I’m going to play some audio clips of inspectors hammering on poles. Listen to this one. Hear that? That’s a pole with advanced rotting.”

Interactive Lecturing

If your lesson content is important to your students’ performance, there’s no excuse for not allowing them to participate in the learning. Some people will tell you they learn best by listening, as though they have no use for their other senses. Some insist they love lectures, which can’t be criticized. But it doesn’t change the laws of learning. We are made for processing information in holistic fashion. Even our feet take in a tremendous amount of information that lets us read the texture of a forest floor or keeps us from stumbling on uneven surfaces. Our whole being is an information antenna.

However, because we have memory banks to draw on, we can mentally interact with a lecture (and with pre-recorded instruction) when participation is designed into it. Even an all-verbal presentation can be interactive. Here’s one example:

Trainer: “Utility poles fall every year because—why?”

Student: “Lightning.”

Trainer: “Very occasionally, yes.”

Student: “Rotten wood.”

Trainer: “But how do they fall?”

Student: “They rot and fall apart.”

Trainer: “Rotten poles can stand for years.”

Student: “A tree falls on them.”

Trainer: “What else could a tree fall on?”

Student: “Wires.”

Trainer: “Let our tree crews know when you see a tree that looks ready to fall on wires along a roadway.”

Student: “I’ve seen wind knock a pole down.”

Trainer: “Straight-line wind can snap a pole that is strong everywhere except at the base.

Student: “Cars break utility poles on the highway.”

Teacher: “Correct. And hopefully you will never allow a pole on the roads to get so bad that it falls for any reason except that a car hit it. Fallen power lines are our company’s worst nightmare. For the 10 ten minutes, I will explain how much weight poles should hold. Then I’ll take your questions.”

Healthy Minds Want to Participate

The above example of interaction is based heavily on people’s memories. Rather than just talking, the trainer invited and imparted critical knowledge. The trainees’ own minds supplied the video screen.

Instructors who are afraid to allow for interaction have a bad habit of defaulting to lectures. They prefer to throw big wads of information at their classes. Be confident. Healthy minds want to participate in meaningful content. Guide them into it. Participation is where you find the greatest adventures in learning.

Max T. Russell has specialties in educational media and human learning and memory. His e-book, “How to Be an Interesting Teacher: Mastering the Four Factors of Interesting Learning Environments,” is on Amazon. You can contact him at

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