Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teaching Effectively:The Bad Side

             Engaging a classroom full of people is difficult. It doesn’t matter if those people are 6 or 60. There are always going to be some who think a topic is boring, some who aren’t paying attention, and some who seem to be doodling the entire time. That being said, there are some teachers or presenters who engage their audience better than others. Who are somehow able to make interesting even the most boring of topics. How do they do it? How can we apply these skills to other aspects of life?
           An effective teaching style depends entirely on the topic you happen to be teaching. For instance, letting a kid play the French horn for an hour would be really effective in band class. Less so during a History class. Having students free-draw for a half hour might be really informative for an art lesson. Probably not so much when you’re trying to teach them algebra. Lecturing for an hour would be effective while teaching a concept-heavy subject like neuroscience. However, kids would quickly become bored in the writing class. Actually…come to think of it, an hour’s worth of lecturing is boring no matter what class you’re in. It doesn’t matter how interesting the material is or how funny the professor. If you’re sitting for an hour and only listening, you’re probably going to space out a couple times. We’ve all experienced it, and I know the doodles in my notes can attest to it.
            Most professors and teachers know this at some level (they were all students once) and some do a better job of realizing it than others. For instance, my current Educational Psychology professor has told us a number of times that students learn much better when they’re engaged and not just listening blandly to lecture. Do you know what’s really funny? The first time she told us that was in the middle of a fifteen minute long lecture. She pointed to the concept on the slide she had prepared and then moved on to the next topic. There was no real time spent on it. No discussion. Just a bland reference to another prevalent concept in Ed Psych.
            I feel kinda depressed to say it, but that experience has been fairly average throughout my college career so far. Ed Psych is easily not the most boring class I’ve been in. For some reason, some professors seem to really enjoy hearing the sound of their own voice and some seem not to know how to fix the lack of attention their students are giving them. I wouldn’t be surprised if those same professors routinely mentioned how dull their students seemed on any given day. They realize what’s happening – they’re smart people – but they don’t quite know how to solve the problem.
            Now, don’t get me wrong: there are definitely interesting, engaging professors out there, and even the ones who are boring in class are really fascinating to talk to in person. But, there seems to be a little disconnect between the boredom I know these professors experienced as students and the boredom some of them are causing now. One of the off-hand comments my Ed Psych professor made a couple classes ago is illuminating, “We’ll have a really lecture-heavy day today, but I want to get through it so we can have a good discussion next time.” She knows lecture is boring, but she still sees it as a necessary evil. Never mind the fact that she’s probably forgotten mostly everything she’s ever been lectured. Never mind the fact that her students probably learned more from fifteen minutes of discussion than they did during an hour of her slides and talking.
            If I were to bring these ‘probable facts’ to her, (I don’t actually know if any are true…If this was an academic paper, I would totally fail) I can imagine the counter-argument she would give. It would likely be some form of “We need to get through the material. We have a lot to cover and the quickest way to do that is to lecture about it.”
            My counter-counter argument would be something along the lines of. “That’s true, but that doesn’t mean you have to have fifteen and twenty minute blocks of you talking. There are any number of ways you could split it up.”
            “Like what?” She would ask.


Teaching Effectively: Lecturing Well

Well,” I would say, “There are a number of different techniques that can be used to break up 15 and 20 minute blocks of lecture. Asking questions is a great way to get students to figure out the information on their own. Cold calling on them can work especially well to keep the entire class engaged. I’ve even seen professors who have students stand up in front of the class. There are any number of ways to make students just a little bit uncomfortable so they keep paying attention.”
Every (good) teaching book will tell you that students learn much better when they’re engaged with the material. When they’re out of their comfort zone enough so that they’re constantly paying attention, but not so uncomfortable that that their learning is harmed. The goal, these books say,  is to make them active learners. Not passive listeners. However, this can be difficult to do while lecturing. After all, the whole point of lecture is to talk through material that may be too dense or not important enough to have a class discussion about. So, how can we keep our class engaged while lecturing? What techniques have other lecturers used in the past?
(These are in no particular order.)
1. Telling Stories. “Remember that time Colin shot up heroin on Hennepin Avenue?...”This is one technique that most professors (and some high school teachers) have down pat. The human brain is designed to remember narratives. It’s why story-telling around campfires has been a human tradition ever since we could understand each other. As long as these stories relate to specific course topics, they can be an effective way of tying course material together and grounding it in reality.
2. Relating To Student Experiences. “What are some examples of synthesis that you’ve experienced in other classes?” This is one of the simplest ways to get students engaged. Tell them (or ask them to think about) something they already know. Then, show them how that relates to what you’re teaching.
3. Talking About Sex. Food, and Bodily Harm. (One of my friends once saw a problem in his Chemistry textbook that gave some background about how deadly arsenic was and then told a short story about Ryan, a man at a dinner. At the end, the question asked, “If Ryan died twenty minutes later, how much arsenic had his brother, Steve, used?” My friend still talks about that problem.) This concept is closely related to above. There’s a reason why Game of Thrones is so popular: there’s nothing that keeps people’s attention more than appealing to the three lowest tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  
4. Doing Strange Things. (A kid stands in front of the class. The professor walks up behind him while miming a sword in his hands and says, “Kelton is completely unsuspecting while I walk up behind him with my katana. And, what’s a katana again, everyone?”
“A two handed sword.” The class says.
“That’s right. A two handed sword. So, I’m walking up behind Kelton with my katana. He’s completely unsuspecting.”Kelton looks at him. “Turn the other way.” Kelton turns around and the class laughs. “I’m walking up behind him with my katana, he’s not looking, and I cut him in half this way.” The professor mimes cutting Kelton in half on a line between his nose and his belly-button. “That’s the sagittal plane.”)
This may sound like a strange teaching style (probably because it is), but it’s extremely effective. That particular moment has been seared into my brain, and it had an incredible impact on the class I was precepting (Macalester slang for TAing). I heard a number of kids say things along the lines of, “Of course I remember it. It was so drastic. He had someone stand up in front of the class and cut them in half.”  
5. Varying Pitch, Tone, Movement Style,  and Facial Expression. (Watch Ian McKellen do anything.) There are any number of politicians, professors, actors, telemarketers, pieces of music, people who talk about dolphins at zoos, sales clerks, DJ’s, and general everyday people who can benefit from this one. The nervous system notices change. If we want someone to listen, the easiest thing we can do is make sure we’re not speaking in a monotone. If we want to make a music piece interesting, one of the first things we should do is change the dynamics. If we want to write something interesting, make sure to vary sentence length. It’s not complicated.
7. Adding Humor. “What’s the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman? Snowballs.” A couple course relevant jokes can go sooo far in a class. I can’t even begin to describe how essential this is. Humor can make even the most dull lectures palatable, and there’s no subject on Earth that can’t be made funny under the right circumstances.
8. Recapping Old Info. (Remember where the sagittal plane is? It runs from your belly-button to your nose.) What’s the point of teaching students something if they’re not going to remember it? Referencing old information or getting students to think about it is a great way to hammer home important concepts.
9. Lecturing About New Topics. Not Concepts Students Know. (One time, my Stats professor lectured for ten minutes about mean and mode. We had known that since we were twelve.) This is the cardinal sin of teaching. You never want to be spending time on something everyone in the class already knows. It’s the quickest way to lose their attention, and it’s time that could be spent on something else. That being said, teachers do this ALL the time. However, there are a couple easy ways to make sure this doesn’t happen...
10. Asking Students What They Know. (A number of teachers have given me a basic knowledge test on the first day of classes.) Students are more than happy to share what they already know with you. You just have to ask.
11. Having Students Talk To Their Neighbor. “Turn to your neighbor and remind them what the function of the hippocampus is.” This technique covers so many core educational concepts that I’m not sure why every professor doesn’t do it all the time. It gets students to pay attention in class because they don’t want to look like a fool in front of their neighbor. It increases their comfort in class because they realize that their neighbor knows just as much (or as little) as they do about the subject matter. It builds the interpersonal skills that everyone says is important as an adult. It gets the entire class involved in a topic. And, it doesn’t have to take very long. (My mom, a former professor, was rather surprised when I brought up this last point in conversation.) If you choose your questions well, students will be able to answer them in thirty seconds or less. When the conversation level in the room has died down, you can provide the answer, then continue with your lecture. This technique can be especially effective when you have students connect dots you have given them already. You’re much more likely to remember a concept that you figured out on your own.
The most important thing to do while lecturing is to watch student’s reactions and tailor your style appropriately. It’s usually easy to tell when students are paying attention and when they’re not. When you see a lot of them staring off into space, it’s time to try something different. Hopefully, some of these tips can help.  

Teaching Effectively: Other Ways To Engage

Last time, we talked about ways to make lecture interesting. In doing so, we treated lecture as though it was a smart and useful way to teach someone information. That was wrong! Lecture is a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are. There’s not a single useful thing that I ever learned from a lecture! Not one! Not even this concept of evil lectures that I couldn’t have thought of without actually sitting in a lecture. Well...okay fine. Maybe I did learn one thing from a lecture, But just that one.
Jokes aside, straight lecture (eg. someone talking without interruption) may be one of the least effective ways to get students to remember information for longer than the time before the next test. At its worst, it’s not not much more than an info dump that students will write down and possibly study. One could even say it’s the professoring equivalent of telling versus showing, and every kid who’s taken a creative writing class can tell you how terrible telling is.
So, with that in mind, what are ways other than lecture that teachers can use to share materials?
One things students (and people in general) are excellent at doing is solving problems and putting together knowledge from known facts. It’s one of the reasons some find math so entertaining. So, if happen to be teaching a math class, why spend time lecturing when students could otherwise be actually solving the problems?
It’s worth noting here that there will always be concepts that need to be talked through or that students just don’t have enough information to intuit. These are prime times for lecture, but try to avoid using lecture to reinforce something students have already learned through doing. My current stats professor has the bad habit of doing that, and most in the class have started surfing their computers instead of paying attention. And, why would they pay attention? They already understand the concept well enough to apply it, and that’s all they need to know. Why spend valuable brainpower listening to someone else explain something that you could explain just as well yourself?
Along these same lines, students are much more engaged and motivated when they’re doing something. If you’re teaching a lesson on the different branches of government, an excellent way to get that message across would be to have students set up their own mock-Congress and start thinking about and voting on bills. They’ll likely come up with some wild ideas to be passed into ‘law,’ but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like the real world. As long as you can get the votes, you can do anything you want.
Another example of having students do lessons instead of listen to them could be during an acting class. There are thousands of books written on acting and acting theory. You could read all of them, memorize all the concepts, and still not know the first thing about actually acting in front of people. The same goes with writing. I once had a writing professor who loved to lecture (who’s also the author of a certain book about 7 killings). His lectures were actually pretty entertaining - he has a great sense of humor - but I didn’t learn much in that class about writing because we didn’t do it very often. As such, the class felt very underwhelming.
Some students are also quite good at learning material on their own. - I have two friends from high-school who basically taught themselves algebra because they wanted to be able to take Calculus their Senior year. - This route wouldn’t be advisable for all students, but it could be an option for those who want to get ahead and feel confident enough in their learning to go off on their own. From experience, I can also say that teaching yourself can be one of the best ways of learning. It forces you to draw your own connections from the material, which makes the material more memorable. From a teacher’s perspective, these students who worked ahead are also in a prime position to teach their peers potentially difficult concepts. Quite often, it’s easier to learn from someone who just mastered a concept than it is to learn from someone who learned the concept a long time ago.
Classroom discussions are also great ways to teach important material. They let students draw their own connections, and they’re a great space for letting students share their connections with the rest of the group. They build interpersonal relationships and build all that important personal communication magic that psychologists always say is so important. They’re also fun. There’s not enough fun in the education system. (If there’s one take-away from these blogs it should be that we should make learning more enjoyable. So what if the rest of the world is a dark place full of business meetings where no one laughs? That doesn’t mean we can’t make learning about it more amusing.)

Teaching Effectively: High Expectations Part 1

(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
For my entire life, I’ve benefited from high expectations. For whatever reason, my parents, teachers, professors, friends, and people I’ve worked with have expected me to be above average (at the very least). When I was younger, I let these expectations get to my head. I was overconfident, I had a healthy ego, and I had a very self-centric view on the world. I’d like to think that I’ve changed since then, but experience has taught me that I may not be the best judge.
I bring this up because few kids have access to the same high expectations that I did. I’ve come to realize that these expectations may be one of the few ‘real’ differences between me and some of my high school classmates who might not have performed as well academically.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I wasn’t the fastest in the class (either cognitively or physically). I had a decent memory, but tended to over-rely on it. Especially in elementary-school, my grades were about average for my class or maybe a hair or two above. The only thing that might have been different about me was my imagination. I used to spend hours and days at a time killing orcs, fighting stormtroopers, and protecting our farm from all sorts of invaders. Of course, this meant I didn’t spend much time socializing with my peers or working on homework, but it did mean I was happy.
In short, I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t particularly gifted or motivated. Any academic talent that I developed in high-school wasn’t innate. It was learned because others (first my parents, then my teachers) expected it of me.
Most of the other kids in my class didn’t have those same parental expectations. For them, school wasn’t something you were supposed to excel in. Just something you were supposed to get through. For some, school wasn’t even something you were supposed to do well in. We had a couple of kids in my class who went through our school’s special education program. At first (when we were in third and fourth grade), they were just the kids who got ice cream occasionally when they would leave the room. Then, as we got older, we began to notice that they received different assignments than the rest of us. They were easier. Not as complicated or as time consuming. Then, when we got to high school, we noticed that they didn’t know as much as we did. They didn’t seem to pick things up as quickly either. Of course, some of us thought we were clever and made the connection that we were smarter than them. They were the slower kids who needed extra help. None of us ever said anything out loud - that would have been mean - but most of us thought it on some level.

Some of these kids had been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Others may have performed especially poorly on standardized tests. A couple may have just had trouble making connections in an academic setting. Whatever the reason, these kids were separated from the rest of us and given different assignments with different expectations. And, being the humans that they were, they rose to meet those expectations. They all graduated, and I have no doubt that our school’s special ed teachers were proud of all of their performances.

Teaching Effectively: High Expectations Part 2

(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
About an hour ago, I was walking from my apartment to campus, pondering the topic for the next blog post. For a fall day, it’s fairly warm outside. The leaves are turning. I’m wearing shorts as I type this. My Educational Psychology class has a test tomorrow, so I had just finished a little studying while I had been eating lunch.
One of the topics that comes up consistently in Educational Psychology is teacher expectations for students. There are any number of things that can change teacher expectation: race, grades, posture, and, of course, whether a student happens to be in a special ed program. There have been a number of studies that have shown that teacher expectation has an incredible impact on how well students perform. It’s even so well documented that it has a name: the pygmalion effect. In essence, this fancy name (that’s probably named after a dead, white man) means what I’ve been trying to show for the last two pages: kids (and the rest of us) rise to the expectation level that people have and sometimes these expectations become internalized.
When this happens, kids expect more of themselves, so they try harder and apply themselves more. In my case, I learned how to study, and I started paying more attention in class once it became clear that everyone seemed to expect me to be academically successful. Eventually, I started to expect it of myself.
As I was walking, I was thinking about all this, and I asked myself the question:
“If this is true, then shouldn’t every student have the same high expectations? Should I have expected the same academic performance from both myself and James?” - One of the kids who had been in special ed in my high school. -
My immediate answer was, “Of course not; it wouldn’t have been fair to have held him to the same standard. He would probably have struggled and may have eventually shut down. It just wouldn’t have been fair.”  
“Okay, well what about Jason and Jonathan?” - Who had had the highest and third highest GPA’s respectively. -
“Of course. We took all the same classes. None of us could have gotten through pre-calc without the other two. ”
“What about Gavin?” - Another one of my classmates who had never needed any special ed help. -  
“Yeah, it would have been fair to expect the same of us.”
“What about Jason and Allison? Should they have had the same expectations?”
“Of course.”
“What about Allison and Cody?” - Cody had also been though the special ed program. Allison hadn’t.-
“Well... Oh, I see where you’re going.”
Completely unconsciously, I had assumed that the special ed kids from my high school couldn’t handle the same expectations that the rest of us could. I knew that each of us were always going to have different levels of success (few students ever have the exact same GPA), but for whatever reason, the kids in the special ed program needed to have training wheels when the rest of us didn’t.   
I thought this because the special ed kids had always had training wheels. They had always received extra help or easier assignments, and almost all of them genuinely believed that they couldn’t handle the material the same way the rest of us could. And, they had good reason to believe that. Whenever they were in the classroom with the rest of us, they were always behind because we had covered the material faster than they had. They saw that the rest of us seemed to know so much more than they, so they assumed it was because we were smarter. They assumed it was because they needed the extra help they were constantly being given. Through the years, whatever small difference there had been in cognitive ability between us and them blossomed into a gulf that could only be bridged by the extra help they had always been given. By labeling them as “special ed,” they became special ed.
The implications for this line of thought are tremendous. Special ed programs exist in almost every school, and billions of dollars are spent on them. They’re seen as an integral part of education in many circles and many teachers have the exact same unconscious thought I had earlier today, “It simply wouldn’t be fair for them. They couldn’t handle it.”
Now, I don’t think we should get rid of the extra support that special ed students get. That would only make the problem worse. Instead, I think we should normalize the help those students get so that the resources are available for everyone. Some college professors do this in their classes. They require everyone to come to office hours at least once or twice in the semester. This makes seeking additional help part of the class, which makes the associated stigma disappear. In an elementary through high school setting, this could be used as a tool to keep everyone in the same class. Require every student to go to the ‘Extra Help’ center a couple times a month during study hall and don’t separate the class while teaching.  
We should also avoid labeling students as much as possible. One of the special ed kids in my high school would often use his ADD as a crutch (at least in my opinion). Whenever we were partners on a project, he would often give up fairly quickly when I tried to walk him through the problem. He would occasionally say things like, “Don’t you remember? I have ADD.” and “I can’t do this.” Because of the belief that his ADD needed help, he seemed to have lost the ability to problem solve without their assistance.   
 These ideas to fix the special ed program may sound well and good, but (now that I think about it), there’s a very good reason why they haven’t been implemented yet. School funding has been on the chopping block for legislatures at all levels of government for a long time. If schools had the money to hire more ‘Extra Helpers,’ I’m sure they would love to. The various labeling techniques used may just be a cost effective way of picking out the kids who need the most help. Schools may or may not realize the effect class separation has on student psychology. If they do, they may have decided that the alternatives (slowing down classes or using more primary teacher time to explain concepts) were too much of a burden to put on classes who needed to move quickly in order to be fully prepared to take the next standardized test.      

But, regardless of school’s reasons for why special ed programs are the way they are, we should always keep in mind the experiences and confidence level of the kids in those programs. Because it’s their lives we’re changing.

Teaching Effectively: Parenting

Parenting: Everyone knows something about it. Few do it well. None of those who do write books about it. It’s been something we’ve been doing ever since we started having unprotected sex that one night in the hotel in Boston, and we still haven’t figured out how to do it right.
Parenting: It’s an art-form that people have tried to boil down to a science. A ridiculous complexity that psychologists have reduced down to four different styles, (authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and negligent) none of which come close to telling us what diapers we should buy. It’s one in the morning. For some reason this Walgreen's is still open. God please help us.
Parenting: They said it was the greatest miracle that will ever happen to us. WE HAVEN’T SLEPT IN THREE YEARS.

My father would always give me this advice about parenting, “If it won’t matter in five years, don’t worry about it.” What he meant was that you should always see a kid’s actions through the lens of perspective. No matter what you do, the kid is going to grow up. The only job you have is to, “make sure they’re a reasonably well-adjusted thirty year old (my dad, roughly three years ago).” What he also meant was that you’re going to go crazy if you worry about every single thing a child does. And, even worse, your kid is going to go crazy if you worry about every little thing they do. Take a deep breath. Count to three. Consider screaming into the sweatshirt you have tied around your waist.

When my cousin was two, she would always throw her sippy cup into her cereal. Cheerios would spill everywhere. Her sippy cups would crack. My uncle wouldn’t be happy. He would grumble, sweep up the Cheerios, and grudgingly give her more. As soon as he did, my cousin would look at her cereal, look at him, and gleefully dump the sippy cup back into the cereal.
One morning - like always - my uncle poured Cheerios for both of them, poured some milk from his cup into his cereal like he usually did, and then watched as my cousin threw her whole cup at her cereal. Only this time - instead of grumbling and sweeping up the Cheerios - he looked at his cup and then looked at her. She grinned, “Dada.” He smiled, swept up the Cheerios, and started pouring his milk into his cereal directly from the jug.

Kids are like mirrors who don’t understand nuance. They’re little monkeys who see. Then do. But don’t understand. A sippy cup is a cup. The proper way to eat Cheerios is to connect a full cup of liquid with the bowl before eating. Darn, it didn’t work. Let’s try again. Dad can somehow do it really easily.

One day, I was sitting with my friends at the mall next to a mother with a girl-child. The food court was loud with conversation, but I still heard the child say something like  “Nice jeans, mom,” in a sarcastic tone.
“Elenore! That’s not very nice.”
A little while later, the mother’s friends showed up. The first thing the mother said was “Nice shirt, Tracey,” in almost the exact same tone her daughter used. Elenore rolled her eyes, but I was the only one who noticed.

My dad would always tell me, “I’m not a role-model.” He’s also old. Seventy-six. Like most old people, he sighs whenever he stands up. Usually its from his tan chair in the corner of our living room. The one overlooking the bird feeder next to the fireplace. One day, I came home from play practice, raided the fridge for something to eat, then sat down in my silver chair, and we began to talk about nothing in particular - like usual. - When I stood up start studying for my AP Bio test the next day, he said “You sound like an old man.” There was a twinkle in his eye.
“What do you mean?”
“You just gave a deep sigh when you stood up.”

I hadn’t noticed.