What Jay Z taught me about learner engagement

Kelly Long

Kelly Long is the founder and host of Inspiration 4 Teachers, an educational podcast. A Secondary school teacher of ten years specialising in Business and IT, Kelly is continuously learning and evolving, often via her award-nominated podcast, where she interviews dynamic and inspirational educators in order to share pedagogic empowerment and knowledge.

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Originally published on 7th January 2016 Originally published on 7th January 2016 "To celebrate the 2015/16 school year, we're republishing the most popular article of each month. Today: January's top read. We'd love to know what you think, and if you've used these ideas yourself in the classroom, let us know in the comments section! "

An engaged student will demonstrate four traits when learning: they’ll stick with a problem, they engage fully, they experiment on their own, they return to the problem if necessary. So how do you make classrooms come alive with thriving, engaged learners? Perhaps look to the world of popular rap and icons like Jay Z, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.

These iconic rappers all have something extraordinary in common; they know how to engage an audience! Having the ability to engage with others on a personal level is a skill that not everyone has, as we’ve seen on talent shows such as the X-Factor.

Yet the most successful rapper can look into the eyes of their fans, command their attention and make them “jump, jump” at the bounce of a hand. Imagine that power in the classroom; learners hanging on to your every word and feeling inspired enough to go and experiment on their own! It’s not a skill often taught at teacher-training schools, and yet to engage with others is to have a high level of emotional intelligence! However, emotional intelligence alone is not enough to make any aspiring rapper or teacher successful at striking a rapport and engage with their audience.

What distinguishes the very best like Jay Z are five traits which we can learn from in teaching, to motivate, engage and inspire learners.
1. Never giving up

With no major label to give Jay Z a record deal, he sold CDs out of his car before forming his own independent label in 1995. He worked hard at his art improving his talent by analysing how he could become better. Reflective teaching is an extremely important skill that takes time to craft, but to craft it requires on-going reflection and a drive not to give up. Reflection will help you to improve your teaching style, adapt it and use it to engage learners. Your teaching style is critical for managing behaviour, but at its core it requires a “never giving up attitude” not only about yourself, but never giving up on your learners.

2. Always be willing to improve

The best of the best know that to make it big in the rap music industry, they need to identify what they are good at and then set about crafting their talents. An artist knows that they’ll never be a master; you’re always the life-long learner in search of the perfect beat, rhyme or delivery. In teaching you must identify and improve upon your assets! These are your core strengths; a combination of skills, knowledge and your personality. However, coaxing this information from yourself is like experiencing your worst interview where your mind draws a blank when asked the first question. Using a framework helps to remove the second guessing and allows you to focus on improving your talents! The University of Kent has compiled 52 questions to help you set about identifying your strengths.

Once you understand your own personal talents you can use them to craft a learning environment that engages and motivates learners. Using your core strengths to lead the learners in your classroom to a point where they are self-directed in their own learning is crucial.

3. Knowledge

Jay Z knows how to generate interest in his lyrics and this is by researching and analysing what actually works, what can be refined and what is going to generate impact that causes an engaged response. Understanding what actually works in education underpins and informs teaching strategy to help create and facilitate a need for learning. But this is where you must be ready to experiment and put to the challenge everything you know about how pupils learn! Asking, why does this work in education, instead of doing because you’ve been instructed to is critical for inspiring learners based on what actually works.

4. Emotional intelligence

Jay Z might not have any formal qualifications to his name, but he understands the art of emotional intelligence and knows what it is that his audience wants. He can present an argument, giving the advantages, the disadvantages, in a manner that generates an emotional response from his fans. Teachers with strong emotional intelligence understand that relationships are the foundation to hooking their students into the learning. These teachers have high expectations of their learners (never giving up attitude), they are enthusiastic and above all they are meticulous in inspiring thinking and guiding learners.

5. A passion for wonder and storytelling

It is common human behaviour to want to know what happens next in the story! This is how successful rappers are able to link their personal experiences and weave them into a story that evokes an emotional connection with their fans. The art of storytelling has shaped the narrative of our own personal history, it is engagement in its most primitive form and it can be used to stimulate a need for the learning. So what is the story of your subject specialism, why do you have a passion for it and why should learners want to hear it? More importantly, what is your students’ story? If you understand what drives them, you’ll be able to create a problem solving classroom environment that invokes a need to act and learn!  

Do you have a pedagogic inspiration such as Jay Z? Let us know below!

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