5 Reasons Teachers Should Love Podcasts–and 5 Shows to Try

Savvy do-it-yourselfers and self-educators know there’s an instructional YouTube video for everything. Want to learn how to make great Spanish rice? There’s a video for that. Several, actually. Speak Dutch? Sure. Replace the brake pads on a 2003 Nissan Altima? You bet. (Also for 2003 Nissan Altimas. Or 2012-2014, rear brakes only.) No matter how basic (whistle!) or obscure (design a Minecraft kitchen!), someone out there with a hankering to teach has anticipated your curiosity and painstakingly recorded a video to satisfy it.

The world of podcasts is starting to look a little similar. Not quite in terms of scale—300 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute, which is a high bar to meet—but perhaps in terms of variety and learning opportunities. Many thousands of brand new shows were published just last year, and it’s mighty difficult to find an interest that isn’t covered. Obviously, this is a boon for all fans of audio entertainment and learning, but I think it’s especially great for teachers.

In my last post, I focused on the podcast I host—Word of the Day, about the most fascinating but underused words in the English language—and suggested a few ways to use it in the classroom. This time, I’m going a little broader. I’ll give you five reasons why teachers should be excited about podcasts, and suggest a few shows to get you started.

5 Reasons Why Teachers Should Be Excited About Podcasts

1. There Are So Many Options!

Just within the iTunes “education” category, there are shows about history, science, language, literature, business, music, psychology, finance—and, yes, teaching itself. And you needn’t limit yourself to that subsection, either—fascinating subjects hide in every corner of the podcast library.

What do you teach? What topic is next up in the curriculum? Go ahead and search for it. On a whim, I picked two topics: President William Henry Harrison (our shortest-serving commander in chief), and the hippocampus (a part of the brain central to storing memories and processing emotions). Yep! Myriad episodes exist for each, ranging from introductory to erudite to comedic. Sample some, dabble a little. See what you find.

2. Impressive Quality

I am generalizing here a little. Everything under the sun can be done poorly, and podcasts are no exception. But there is an abundance of well-produced, thoughtfully prepared shows by experts in their field—folks with a knack for turning challenging concepts into interesting shows. Some hosts can sit down in front of a microphone and expound on their specialty off the cuff. Others use scripts, carefully developing their ideas in written form before committing them to audio. In either case, I am generally pleasantly surprised by the care and expertise put into each. And as podcasts as a whole grow ever more popular, the medium will attract even more talent.

3. They’re Free

Let’s not overlook this! I mean, sure, there are occasionally ads, but this is a small price to pay. Oh, did I accidentally imply there is a price? My bad! Listening to (or, let’s be honest) skipping advertisements doesn’t cost you a cent. If authorities on various subjects are proffering their knowledge at no cost, why not take advantage?

4. They’re Novel

Students’ attention spans can be, to put it mildly, finite. No matter how fascinating your content or how important the information, holding everyone’s attention for a whole class session, week after week, is a serious challenge. Hinting ominously that things might be on the test can buy you some focus, but even that’s a temporary solution.

Teachers know that mixing up teaching methods is a great way to keep students engaged. Even if the material is similar, deviating from the same-old whiteboards, slides and lectures can keep it fresh. As another option in a teacher’s Toolbox of Monotony Destruction, podcasts can come in real handy.

5. Great for In-Class Activities, Homework, Projects, etc.

Oh boy, where does one begin? You could assign an episode to listen to at home, and ask students to write up an analysis or reaction, or let them pick their favorite show and present on it for the class, or suggest writing up and recording a show as a final project. Whether as journalism, storytelling or an exploration of a given topic, recorded audio can be a great outlet for eager minds—and, if undertaken in groups, a great way to practice creative collaboration.

Or, in a corollary to “you can always eat them straight out of the box!” reminders accompanying basically all snack foods, you can just pick an especially interesting clip and incorporate it into in-class lectures or discussion. Think of the hosts like guest speakers or fellow teachers who have already gone to the trouble of preparing content for you. Whether you’re assigning whole episodes or just curating highlights to share, their work and their resources are there for you to use.

Shows To Get You Started

Now, to whet your appetite, here are a few podcasts I think have solid classroom potential. This is not a comprehensive list! It’s drawn just from my own podcast collection, which includes 33 shows. I didn’t select them for teaching purposes, but there are still some gems—and I couldn’t even hit all my favorites.

1. Planet Money —Economics

This is the gold standard in taking potentially complex topics and presenting them in an entertaining fashion. An ensemble cast of hosts highlight present and historical events and ideas in the field of economics, interspersing expert interviews with levity and banter.

I recommend their mini-series on buying their very own barrel of crude oil.

2. The Memory Palace —History

Not just dates and luminaries—this beautifully written show tells of incredible people, events, and curiosities in American history.

Episode suggestion: AKA LEO, on the life and times of the original MGM lion.

3. Radiolab —Science

Acclaimed for its impeccable production and riveting storytelling, Radiolab’s compelling explorations into psychology and the natural world has turned it into one of the most popular and long-running shows in existence.

Episode suggestion: Strangers in the Mirror, about the phenomenon of “Face Blindness,” which prevents people from forming memories of faces.

4. Song Exploder —Music

Host Hrishikesh Hirway interviews musicians as they dissect their songs and discuss the creative process of writing and producing them.

Episode suggestion: actually, I recommend simply scrolling through the list of artists featured until you see one you like.

5. The Word of the Day —Language

You didn’t think I’d finish a list of podcast recommendations without including my own, did you? Honestly, though, it’s designed for use in a classroom: Each word is explained with precision, humor and zest—perfect for helping English students (whether native speakers or ESL) appreciate language and pick up new words with ease. Here is what one California high school teacher had to say:

“The Word of the Day Podcast was wonderful! I asked my students to listen carefully and take note of the definition. While listening, there were many and varied chuckles, which I was extremely happy about because getting them to chuckle is difficult! Then I asked various students to share what they drew from the podcast. They each had similar, but different ‘pieces of the puzzle,’ and ultimately were able to nail the definition! It was such a success!”

If you want to give it a try yourself, maybe start with Episode 25: Tacit. (All are on iTunes as well.)

There You Have It…

I hope this inspires you to try out a podcast or two in your classroom. And you might have your own favorite shows! If so, feel free to suggest them in the comments and keep spreading the word—maybe even some you’ve used to complement your teaching or inspire a student project! The world of podcasts is growing richer by the day—teachers should seize the opportunity.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Chiot’s Run.

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