I love this story about Mrs Goldburg. I first came across it in 1989 when I attended a workshop given by Richard Andersen at S.I.T. in Brattleboro, Vermont.

For me, it says so much about user engagement, and so much about what is misunderstood about engagement. The technique he describes won’t apply to every situation, but the principle behind it will.

This extract is from: Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Crises is in Education

by Richard Andersen (on Amazon)

Mrs Goldburg was in her last year before retirement and no two teachers contrasted as much as she and I. She was old, I was young; she was fat, I was thin; she was short, I was tall, or at least taller; she was losing her hair, mine came down to my shoulders.

“And nowhere were be more dissimilar than in our approaches to teaching. Literally and figuratively, we were on the opposite sides of the hall. Mrs Goldburg didn’t believe in relating to the students or putting on a show for them in front of the room. Nor was she very keen on whetting their interests or stirring their creativity. And preparing the ‘whole child’ for a role in society she left to fools.

Of these, I was probably the biggest. Willy Loman would have been proud of the way I kept my personality before my merchandise. I knew that what was important in this business was not just to be liked, but to be well-liked, to sell literature through the person I wanted the students to believe I was.

Mrs Goldburg, on the other hand, allowed literature and her students to speak for themselves by beginning each class with a ten-minute, five question, short answer quiz. Some of the questions were factual (to make sure they’d read the assignment), but most of them were either interpretive or associative. The interpretive questions asked the students’ opinions, which had to be supported by specific references to the text; associative questions asked students to make connections, usually thematic, between the story they’d read for homework and previous readings.

Those poor kids! If that wasn’t the most anti-all-I’d-ever-learned-about-what-it-means-to-be-a-teacher device I’d ever heard, I didn’t know what was. I attracted students to my classes by making them exciting and fun, not by threatening the kids with quizzes and failure. My students came to class because they wanted to, not because they had to.

But as the semester progressed, it was Mrs Goldburg’s students who came to see their teacher (and literature) as not so bad after all. They had to come to class everyday and prepare for quizzes every night, but they were also learning to enjoy reading, and they saw themselves getting better at it as they became accustomed to answering Mrs Goldburg’s questions. Instead of working against them, the quizzes were actually working for them. They gained confidence in their ability to understand and then explain what they had read. Even their writing improved.

When the final grades were posted, Mrs Goldburg’s students had the highest marks in the Department. They liked being the best and showed their appreciation by dedicating the upcoming edition of the yearbook to her – the 8th time she’d received that prestigious honour.

I don’t want to go on too much longer about these quizzes, but if there’s anyone reading this book who is or wants to be a teacher, they are the single, most important teaching device I’ve learned in the past 20 years. Their immediate advantages are obvious: the students do their homework and come to class prepared, and, within fifteen minutes I’ve got five responses from everyone of them. My biggest problem since incorporating Mrs Goldburg’s quizzes into my lesson plans has not been trying to think up ways to keep the kids’ attention (the literature does that), but rather to channel their energies into discussion that encompasses all the different approaches they take to any one work.”