The first time I saw one of these oddly specific speed limit signs, it was on my way into an interview at a country club for an Assistant Golf Professional job. The specificity of the number really made me think. For the rest of my drive in, I couldn’t figure it out.
Why 17 MPH? Why not 15 or 20? What does 17 MPH even feel like? Does the number 17 mean something specific to this country club? Was it founded in 1917? Was the founder born in 1917?
All of a sudden in dawned on me: the point of the sign is to specifically make you spend time thinking about and paying close attention to your speed. If you see 15, you ignore it and go 25. If you see 30, 40 is your chosen speed. If you see 17, you go 17 (at least for a little while). It stands out because it is so specific and unusual. A sign that people generally pay very little attention to becomes a talking point and all of a sudden everyone knows how fast you can go on that road.
We can take advantage of this same idea in education. When my students were working on a task and it was timed (as most of the activities in my class were), they had 78 seconds to write down their reflection. There was 32 seconds to find a partner and decide on a topic. We are taking an 109 second brain break, so take some deep breaths and relax before we get back into the review.
People pay no attention to a 1 minute or 3 minute timer because it’s predictable. You end up herding cats trying to get everyone back and on task. Tell them they need to be back in their group in exactly 67.6 seconds and odds grow exponentially that they’ll be back on time. Eyes stay glued on the timer.
Let’s learn from the Speed Limit 17 sign.
If you keep things unusual and specific in your classroom, interest and engagement go up. That content that you spent time planning and reworking to get it just right- it will be attended to because it isn’t just another worksheet with 20 questions on it. It’s a free response to summarize the last chapter of the book in 74 words; no more, no less. Does it really matter that it be 74 and not 75 or 73- no. But your students just summarized the main idea or central theme of a text, which also happens to be the standard that you are practicing that day.
This might be the first in a non-consecutive series about signs and what they can teach us about education, leadership, and life.