Teach something useful

“Lifehack” is phrase that has worked its way into popular culture vocabulary, defined on their website as “a phrase that describes any advice, resource, tip or trick that will help you get things done more efficiently and effectively.”

There’s a reason why people enjoy reading these short, descriptive tips.  Simply put, they’re useful.

Often times, teachers, including myself, teach with the end goal of what we consider most important for our students.  We teach exercises to build a specific technique, or choose repertoire that will be “good” for our students.  As mentors, we offer our experience as road signs to help guide our students’ down the path of progress. However, what if our student’s don’t perceive what we’re teaching as being useful – a beneficial lifehack?  How does this affect their motivation to learn the information?

Two things to help guide our thinking when choosing content and sequence:

1) Presentation: How can I demonstrate that learning and understanding <thought and behavior changing topic> will be beneficial and useful to my audience?

2) Intent: Is the content actually useful to the audience?  Does it help them improve or build upon something they are already doing, or better yet, will it inspire them to explore something new on their own?


Somewhere along the way, the “Demand”, which in this case is the need for acquiring knowledge, became motivated by completing an assignment or earning a certain grade.  “How many points is this worth?” or “What do I need to do to get an A?”  Yes, grades are important and provide a quantitative way of tracking progress over time.  It can red flag students that need additional help.  However, in the escalating academic arms race to the top, students have become obsessed with their GPA’s and class ranking rather than learning something to quench an inherent thirst for knowledge and new information.

With a successful presentation, teachers create the Demand for their Supply of information.  Topics are interesting because students can identify with the payoff for learning the information.  There are many scenarios that this might be experienced.  Maybe the payoff is simply fun.  Perhaps they see something and have an “aha” moment like, “Wow, I want to do be able to do that or perhaps they hear someone speak, and think, “I really admire what they have to say – perhaps I should ask them what they’re reading?”  Teachers want students to play with a round tone and in tune because they’ve experienced bad tone and poor intonation, and clearly one is preferred over the other.  Do your students strive for a beautiful sound because you constantly reminding them, or because it bothers them when they hear sounds that are harsh and out of tune?

As teachers, we choose content for our students.  A crucial step in the sequencing is to include how am I making students aware of its relevance?


Do we read Great Expectations because that’s just what you do in English class, or is it to present a coming of age story, inspire and create agency for our students to explore their own writing, or examine the literary prose of a historically acclaimed and respected English writer?  The intent behind the content is paramount; always question “why are we doing this?”  Something that could be extremely valuable is otherwise free floating in the sea of limitless information that we can now access through the internet.

By recognizing our students, we can help build their learner agency.  Alex Ruthmann writes:

‘learner agency’ is fundamentally the students’ ‘intrinsic desire’ to ‘understand and to be understood.’ This perspective is rooted in the ‘students’ desires to grow in musicianship’ and to be ‘valued for their musical ideas’ (Blair, 2006).”

I love this quote because it highlights the humanness of the exchange between teacher and learner.  So often the information exchange becomes a one way street, where teachers teach and wonder why some students are not eagerly awaiting their message at the intersection.  Instead, how do we get them to drive towards us, or even better yet, how do we inspire them to want to drive further ahead and explore on their own.  I mean, what teenager is not salivating at the mouth to get their driver’s license and hit the road on their own?  How can we create that same feeling in the classroom by fostering a student’s learner agency, and feel comfortable and able to drive on the highway of knowledge by themselves?

By informing our intent with the needs and interests of our students, we develop a greater insight into the perceived value of our content.  Students may already be making YouTube videos at home, so explaining how transducers convert their voices into an electrical signal, which then needs to be amplified to create separation from the noise floor so there’s less background noise – all of a sudden what we’re teaching becomes more interesting if they see how the info might help them make a better YouTube video.

Lifehacks can be lists of habits or even quick fixes to a particular problem, and they’re provided in the service of being useful to the reader.  Teachers provide short-term and long-term lifehacks, but the question is, do our students finding the information useful?  If not, how can we make it useful for them or do we need to reevaluate what we’re presenting?

Further reading:

Ruthmann, S. (2008). Whose agency matters? Negotiating pedagogical and creative intent during composing experiences.  Research Studies in Music Education, 30(1), 43-58.

Read more about Alex Ruthmann

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