Teaching to the choir

Although much of the reason that I am in graduate school is for an eventual career teaching college students, I have not had many opportunities to teach courses yet. Therefore, for a teaching reflection, I will be reflecting on other opportunities I have had to speak and the one or two opportunities I have had to give a guest lecture.

For the purposes of this blog, I will consider two different experience I’ve had related to teaching: (1) in the fall, when I gave a guest lecture for my advisor in a sophomore-level dynamics course, and (2) yesterday, when I got the opportunity to preach the sermon at my church, Fieldstone UMC. There are actually a surprising amount of similarities between the two experiences. Note: my faith is very important to me, but this is a blog about teaching.

In reflecting on these two experiences, I’ve noticed some things about my teaching style.

Examples are very important to me

Examples help illustrate concepts and help us connect ideas to things we can already wrap our heads around. Maybe its the engineer in me, but I think that examples make incredibly powerful teaching tools.

In the dynamics course, I was teaching about the impulse-momentum equation

J \equiv \int_{t_1}^{t_2} Fdt = mv_2-mv_1

Which says that there’s this thing called the impulse, J, that is equal to the change in momentum. It is a useful formula for studying things like the dynamics of billiards and car accidents. To introduce the topic to my class, though, I didn’t just give them that equation, because equations are scary. I showed a video of a golf ball deforming and talked about how the impulse represents the total effect of that deformation and restoration. Therefore, we don’t have to know the details of that deformation. All we need to know is the change in velocity of the club head in order to determine the velocity that the ball.

In the sermon, I was discussing how small actions can have a profound impact, and I shared a TED talk by Drew Dudley entitled Everyday Leadership. He shares the amazing story about a time that he gave a lollipop to a girl and it utterly changed her life. Thinking about how this moment where he had so profoundly impacted somebody without even remembering it, we can see how we may all be able to impact those around us through small actions.

Examples people something tangible to hold onto when discussions become abstract.

I like to make people move

As we’ve discussed in class, lectures can get boring and people don’t have the attention span. I like to make people move around the room if possible to get the blood flowing and to help them engage.

In the dynamics course, I used a sort of think-pair-share to get the students to try to apply the knowledge in small groups and then discuss with the class in order to make sure that students were engaging with the material rather than just listening to me drone on. In a boring class talking about a derivation, I had the students try it first. Then, they would have something to go from when we talked about the material in class.

During the sermon, I was trying to encourage people to be more conscious of creating a welcoming environment. In the middle of the sermon, I asked everyone to stand up and learn the name of one other person in the room. The room was immediately filled with energy and the rest of the sermon flowed from that energy.

Getting people physically moving during a lecture helps them be involved.

It’s important to keep people engaged

Engagement is hard to describe when giving a presentation of any kind, but it is the most important thing. I think that engagement is just something you can feel. It’s in eye contact and facial expressions, but it’s really just something that you can feel.

I felt it while performing in musicals in high school. I felt it I spent my first couple years of graduate school giving presentations to prospective students and their parents. I felt it yesterday while preaching, and I felt it from some of the students when I taught the dynamics class.

I don’t yet know how to improve that engagement in the classroom. I think that is something that I’ll be working at throughout my career as a teacher.

What do you think? Do you have any fun examples to share? Do you have fun ideas to get people moving in the classroom? Do you know what it feels like when the audience is engaged? Why is it so much harder to be an engaging speaker in a classroom environment?

Is it just a “performance”?

When I was a TA for fluid mechanics, I was given the opportunity to give students weekly recitation. This 45-min class was usually divided into two parts: I will work through some example problems for that week’s topic first, and then followed by some experimental demonstrations that facilitate the students’ understanding of some concepts. This recitation was optional. And the professor stressed that I won’t get too many of them, you know, just to make me less nervous. However, when I walked into the classroom in the first week, I got more than 30 students! That was two thirds of the class! I was totally taken aback by this for a minute, and then, without choice, I proceeded with caution and finished my first class. It is amazing how teaching can get you addicted. Well, at least for me. I started to enjoy standing in front of the students and getting their attention. And inevitably, this feeling got me disappointed several weeks later, in fact, exactly the week after spring break, when some students were still in their holiday moods. I got only five students that week. I felt so depressed that I ran to the professor and asked if it was because the way I teach. Was it because I was a bad teacher? He said: “No. I don’t think so. Sometimes students got busy or they don’t feel like the need to attend a recitation this week. So you don’t need to be sad. As long as you think you are doing your best. This is like a performance. Your performance. You got prepared, go up stage and perform the teaching. No matter how many audiences you’ve got, it does not affect the way you teach. ” I was convinced. This made me feel much better and I totally bought the idea of seeing teaching as a performance. But is it really? As I learnt recently, no. It’s better if we see ourselves as facilitators for students’ learning than as teachers. Teaching should not be a one-way knowledge indoctrination, but should be an interactive process. I still appreciate the professor’s saying that helped me to rebuild my confidence, but teaching is totally not a performance. We should, from some aspects, be cautious about our gestures, voices, and postures that can affect our communication, but we should never see the teaching podiums as our stages. Teaching is not about us. Teaching is about the students.

The candle problem

In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of thumbtacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off the ground. You’ve tried melting some of the wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall, but that wasn’t effective. How can you get the lit candle to be five feet off the ground without you having to hold it there?

This problem was introduced by Karl Duncker in 1945 as a cognitive performance test, and was used by Daniel T. Willingham in his article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind Is Not Designed for Thinking” as an example of how critical thinking is hard. He claimed that the brain is not designed for thinking but designed to save you from having to think, because thinking is slow, effort-full, and uncertain.

In the candle problem, the solution is not tricky (check the solution here). However, if you don’t have enough background from similar problems it might take you a lot of time to come with the solution or you might give up thinking before solving the problem. He said that people mainly rely on memory rather than thinking. Most daily problems are ones we have solved before, so we just do what we’ve successfully done in the past and that’s known as experience. According to him, critical thinking is not a specific skill but it is a process tied to what we already know and stored in our Long-term memory. We relate what is in our Long-term memory to the current working memory to solve the problem.

An important concern he raised about students is that:

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant.

If the student routinely gets work that is a bit too difficult, it’s little wonder that he doesn’t care much for school. Teachers should try to understand students’ feelings about problems they face for the first time like the teacher’s feeling when he hear the candle problem for the first time.

Finally, I want to add a conclusion from Jim Askew’s blog “Web-based instruction 4 teachers” the post with the title “Why Critical Thinking is Hard Work!“.

When teachers ask a question, they must WAIT for the answer. Students need time to process information! As students begin to understand, and practice the process, they WILL be able to process faster! 

A Tapas-Based Approach to Learning

Well, there is no argument that lectures are not the best sole teaching method for 21st century learners and leave a lot of students lacking, or even napping! Lectures have their place, but keep the professor center stage in the “chalk and talk” method, where some students will only hear the Charlie Brown teacher sound “wah wah wah”.

Active learning can engage students into learning complex things which can translate into other areas of understanding. Mark Carnes describes this well in his article Setting Students’ Minds on Fire by using games to engage students. But “active learning” can be read as yet another academic buzzword where the impact of the importance has become watered down from overuse.

So where is the balance? If we the teachers/instructors need to utilize the technology as the resource to engage learners, then how do we employ the most current tools to make best use of our assets in current ways?

Upon reading, digesting, and mulling over some literature regarding shifting in pedagogical approaches for the 21st century, I am reminded of the waves of tapas restaurants and bars popping up everywhere several years back. Yes, tapas, the Spanish cuisine at its brevity and finest.

So how am I connecting these two in my mind?

Tapas are basically a wide variety of appetizers and snacks. They can be hot or cold, simple or sophisticated, and combined to make a full meal. Tapas were designed to encourage conversation rather than to be focus on the food as a meal. The focus is on the engagement of the people enjoying the tapas and not solely on the food. The food is only one part of the bigger context.

Possibly we should look at serving education like serving tapas. We can start out simple, move to something more sophisticated, order a little or a lot, or try several different things to find out what is appealing. Tapas can be a great alternative to huge, heavy meals. Maybe our pedagogy needs to move away a huge, heavy approach to something lighter, varied, and tailored to each individual’s need.

In my mind, a tapas based approach to engagement would look like small chunks of learning opportunities peppered through the class time. Rather than talk out a topic for a 90 minute lecture, things would happen a bit differently. For example, in a 90 minute class, a teacher could have a 10 minute lecture, a 15 minute YouTube video, a 10 minute discussion, a 30 minute experiential project, 15 minute writing post to a common location, and 10 minute on-line discussion thread all related to the main topic for the class. This approach may encourage all types of learners to get involved and engaged at varying levels. Also by moving the teacher from the front to the sidelines, they could offer more assistance where needed by the students. It would also empower the students by trusting their ability to learn and engage on their own. The teacher becomes the helper, like the wait staff or chef. The shift of focus goes from the material being learned to the learning of the material.

After all, in a tapas restaurant, each table will not have the same things; nor would people always order the same amounts or types each visit. A tapas approach to teaching could offer variety, customization, and individual design. Creative approaches could foster imagination of the students, give them bite sized chunks of information to absorb the material, and grab their attention with a variety of teaching methods. Finding that balance of technology, just like finding the right balance of tapas to get you full, can be a beautiful and varied experience.

Hmmmm…anyone else hungry now?

“Oh, that’s so significant!”

Sir Ken Robinson, in this video, mentions that in some parts of United States 60% of children drop out of high school. He was ridiculing the No Child Left Behind Act whose problem stems from its highly decontextualized, one-standardized-test-fits-all approach to education. Like he talks in the video, millions are left behind and those that stay are not learning effectively. This video by Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) could well be used to summarize the effect of such a learning environment: One way to curb such a problem would be to encourage a personalized, autonomous, contextualized, practice-based learning environment somewhat similar to the tenants that I discussed in my previous post. Recently in a Hacker News discussion, I had posted an idea for a similar learning environment:
We should look at how we can improve the ROI for education. Millions across the world, especially in developing countries, drop out of school because they (and/or their guardians) see no benefit from long-term investment in education. Others who somehow manage to stay in formal institutions are exposed to decontextualized education that they cannot realize their full potential. There will be many different solutions to it. One of them could be a large-scale, technology-immersed learning system that teaches a broad range of topics to students through a vocation. The vocation could be decided based on the learner’s interest and the local resources. For example, in northern Nepal, children walk through perilous snow-covered hills and mountains to recover Yarsagumba (“Himalayan viagra”), a fungus with aphrodisiac and medicinal value. Instead, the kids can be educated progressively in details about different aspects surrounding Yarsagumba – mountain climbing, biological systems, business, marketing (where they could sell the collected Yarsagumba), greenhouse and high-tech farming systems, technology, etc. – without disturbing their Yarsamgumba collecting activity. This is a simple example. Since a diverse topics are being taught and practiced, learners would not be restricted in the same vocation.
As conveyed in the above message, for me, an effective learning environment would encompass a highly contextualized learning with active learners actively participating in the learning process and ultimately creating artifacts. Michael Wesch, in his article, mentions that a significant problem in education arises because students struggle to find meaning and significance in their education. The hope is that through a contextualized learning experience, such as the example I mentioned above, we would make learners exclaim, with the joy of new-found knowledge, “Oh, that’s so significant!”

Mindfully learning about mindful learning

I am definitely on board for encouraging mindful learning. Just as I expressed in my last post, the value in inspiring learners to want to learn, engaging them in the material and encouraging them to reach out on their own in a connected learning experience, is not something that can be underestimated. According to Sir Ken Robinson, it is only when an education allows learners to be diverse, creative, and curious (that which is stifled by today’s systems) that they will be engaged and will flourish. Similar sentiments are expressed by Ellen Langer in The Power of Mindful Learning; Langer blames myths in our current mindset on the learning process for, to paraphrase, ‘stifling creativity’ and ‘silencing our questions’ [1]. Both of these underscore the importance of allowing learners to learn individually, creatively and based on their own curiosity. I agree that when someone is allowed to use their natural abilities to pursue an understanding about that which they are passionate, it is a wonderful thing. The question is: how can we inspire such learning in the systems of today or even in the systems of tomorrow? Is it physically, temporally, and economically possible to give each child the attention they need in order to help them find and pursue their passions? Sir Ken Robinson speaks to a well-rounded education, but are there enough hours in a day for a true mindful learning experience in each of requisite topics he describes? One sort of answer to these questions may be found in Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance by Mike Wesch, in which his entire class was restructured to promote “good questions” or, in his view, questions in which the only appropriate response is another question. At least in the time he had with his students, he had a success in immersing them in the topic and engaging them in mindful learning. So, for at least one college course, it is possible. How I would set up an engineering or physiology course to utilize similar immersive techniques as those Dr. Wesch implemented, I am not sure (anybody have any ideas?). Could this system be replicated to some degree at the grade school level? It may be tricky. In all, I think that the most important theme and my take-away from these resources is that one must be mindful of why they are teaching the material before they can find how best to teach it. Is it really the facts and equations that are important or is it the inspiration and skills that come from engaging with the material? In that vein, two examples from my own education come to mind: 1) In my own undergraduate physiology course (which was a typical lecture format), the most memorable moment for me was when someone asked a question and the professor answered, “I don’t know. Nobody knows, so far. People are doing research on that, but that is the boundary of our knowledge.” That small remark helped inspire me to pursue research. 2) In my Statics course, it was required that we format the answers to our homework questions in a very specific way: defining the problem, the “knowns,” and the “unknowns,” drawing a diagram, and then pursuing the solution. Do I remember any specific problems I solved this way from that class? No. But I do remember the problem solving technique and, to this day, if I have a problem to solve, it still gives me clarity when I approach the problem in this way. Whether or not we can have each of our students partake in creating the history of the world as Dr. Wesch did, maybe one small thing we as teachers can do to foster “mindful learning” is have our students know that there are boundaries to our current knowledge and that it is the point of education to gain the perspectives and tools required to tackle pushing the boundaries of that knowledge further. [1] Langer, Ellen J. The power of mindful learning. Addison-Wesley/Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.
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