Tuesday, February 28, 2017

IDEAS, IDEAS, IDEAS



If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my primary recommendations for improved teaching is the “Three E’s.”   Experiment, Evaluate, and Evolve.   I am not sure anyone can become a better teacher if they don’t take this path in some form.   

For that reason, I am always a bit surprised that I don’t have more people coming up to me to tell me about their teaching experiments.  Oh sure, I get a few emails now and then.  But never as many as I would like.  I think all teachers should be bubbling with excitement (my fourth E) over their current attempts to improve teaching.  Every college campus should be an incubator for wonderful new teaching ideas.  Think how education in this world would improve immediately and dramatically if all campuses served as incubators for innovative new teaching ideas.  Does your campus qualify?  If so, let me know.

Why don’t we experiment more?   I could probably list a dozen possible reasons but, I suspect, one underlying cause is a lack of confidence.
--“Oh, this idea won’t really work.”
--“If this idea was actually good, someone else would have already done it.”
--“I’m probably just wasting my time and I don’t have time to waste.”
--“I’ve tried a couple of experiments over the years and they have not improved my teaching.  I’ll stick with what I’ve always done.”  

We are probably all guilty of boxing ourselves in with personal barriers that limit our potential.  As the famous quote (from the comic strip “Pogo”) explains:   “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  We hold ourselves back.  Okay, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.  

Let’s try a test.  The spring semester is about 4-7 weeks old.   How much have you experimented so far this semester?   Don’t give a random answer.  Make a list of specific experiments so you can truly judge.

If your answer to this question is “not much,” then the next question has to be asked:  “why not?”   I might be wrong but I bet many teachers hold a core belief that the results of experiments will not be worth the effort.   Why work so hard if you don’t think you can make your classes better?

How can you get started?  How can you break out of the rut you are in?  How can you start innovating?   I believe it all starts with generating ideas.  If you are going to teach better (heck, if you are going to do anything better), you need to develop the skill of coming up with ideas.

So, today, I want to inspire you with a story from my campus.  Last week, Marc Randolph (who co-founded Netflix with Reed Hastings) was at the Robins School of Business to speak.   You can read all about the speech at


I want to mention three key passages from his speech.  I hope his words will inspire you to come up with some new teaching ideas and then I want you to go into class and try them.  Experiment, evaluate, and evolve must always start with ideas.

First, Randolph clearly agrees with my assertion that lots of ideas are needed before you are likely to spot good ideas.  One experiment alone rarely hits the jackpot.  Developing and trying ideas needs to be a core part of every course.   According to Randolph “It turns out that success is directly proportionate to how many ideas you try, and the number of ideas that you try is directly proportionate to how quickly and how cheaply you can test them.”   Experiment a lot and evaluate as quickly as possible.

Second, don’t wait around for ideas to fall on your head.  The real key to success is to always be looking for those ideas.   According to Randolph, “Ideas do not spring out of thin air at some mythical eureka moment.  You have to look for ideas.  You’ve got to train yourself to see them when they appear.  The idea for Netflix, for example, did not come from some moment of anguish over a late fee on a movie.  We were looking for that idea.  We looked for a long time, and it was buried in a big pile of bad ideas.  We didn’t even find it in a video store.  We actually had the idea for Netflix while we were carpooling.”  If you wait for eureka moments, you will be waiting a long time.  Unless you are Archimedes, they do not happen often.  Examine every aspect of teaching and think about how each might be done differently.  Search for new ways of doing every task.

Third, don’t be discouraged when you encounter doubters.  At first, every great new idea only makes sense to a very few people.  The rest are locked into the old paradigm.   If you believe that an idea will work, don’t get in a hurry to give up on it.   Randolph tells a fabulous story about the starting years of Netflix when they asked the video giant Blockbuster to buy Netflix in order to create a new type of video company.  Blockbuster had 60,000 employees and $6 billion revenue.  Netflix had 100 employees and $5 million revenue.  Blockbuster officials laughed at the idea of needing to buy Netflix.  Ten years later, Netflix dominated the industry and drove Blockbuster into bankruptcy.   The Netflix founders could have been discouraged but they believed in their vision.  Now, they are the giant and Blockbuster has long since faded into oblivion.  According to the newspaper article:  “’I’m not the kind of guy who gloats about driving a big company into bankruptcy,’ Randolph said with a grin.  ‘I actually tell this story for a different reason, because in some ways it’s an inspiring story, about how a handful of people with no experience in the video business and with nothing more than some ideas, and some persistence, could take down a $6 billion market leader.” 

Lessons for today.
--Have lots of ideas.  As a teacher, experiment as often as possible.  Make it a central part of your teaching.  There’s no better way to improve.
--Learn to look for ideas.  If you look for them, great ideas are all around us.  But they won’t knock you on the head, you have to be looking.  I cannot stress enough the importance of always watching for new teaching ideas.
--Plenty of people will tell you that your ideas won’t work.  They take pride in finding flaws.  If you truly believe in your ideas, be persistent.  Don’t give up just because people don’t automatically understand your vision.   Experiment, evaluate, and evolve.   You’ll be amazed by how quickly you become one of the best teachers in your building and at your school.


Get the incubator started. 



Sunday, February 5, 2017

TOM BRADY AND THE SUPER BOWL



The 51st Super Bowl is being played tonight.  For a few hours, everyone will stop and watch two excellent teams battle it out for the right to be known as the ultimate champions.  

I sent the note below to my students this morning.   I was not trying to convince them I was crazy or that I was obsessed.   They probably already think that.   I don’t care if they watch the Super Bowl.  What I care about is that they realize that success (whether it is their success or Tom Brady’s success) comes from work and not from watching someone else be successful.   I felt they needed to know that I was going to be upset if they show up for my class tomorrow poorly prepared because they had stared for hours at a television set watching a bunch of strangers 1,000 miles away becoming champions.   I suspect that some people want to feel like champions without having to do any of the difficult work so they latch on to a team or to a  player in an attempt to share that success.  That is not how I want to do it.

I truly want my students to be successful.  (I know them personally.  They are bright.   They are nice people.  I have a reason to want them to become winners.)  I have an idea that their success will not be increased one iota by watching the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons play football.  As long as watching does not get in the way of them being prepared for my class, I am all for it.   It is a nice diversion.   But the second that watching someone else play a game gets in the way of their own personal success, then I am upset.

The same goes for teachers.  If watching Tom Brady play football this evening keeps me from being prepared for a great class at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, then I should not watch that game.  My students must come first.  My students have to be more important to me than all those strangers on those two football teams.   If not, then I should retire so I can have more time to sit on my couch and watch television.

Email to my students:

“There is a football game tonight.   I don't care.  I expect you to be well prepared tomorrow morning.   Tom Brady and all those other players will be well prepared tonight because they desperately want to be the best.   I expect the same from you.   You will have had 71 hours since Friday's class.   That is plenty of time to have found 90 minutes to get well prepared.   I guarantee that Tom Brady will not show up tonight and say ‘you know I got busy watching someone else on television being a winner and that was more important to me than my own chance to be a winner.’   In my opinion, the world will be a lot better off when talented people stop spending so much time watching other people become winners.   Your motto simply cannot be ‘I really want to be a winner but I am willing to let other people out work me.’"


Sunday, January 22, 2017

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN



Here are three things that happened to me in the past few days.   Hopefully, at the end, I’ll be able to connect these three stories into a definite point that makes some amount of sense.

One

Last week, I received an email from a professor on the liberal arts side of our campus.  He indicated that after 30 years as a college teacher he was in the process of switching to a Socratic Method style.  He had heard that I had been using that approach for a long time.  He wondered if he could sit in on a class and observe.

Of course, I was glad to have him visit.

He showed up.   He paid close attention to what I was trying to do.   He took notes.   After class, he asked several excellent questions.  We agreed that we would stay in touch.  I would provide advice if he ever needed any.

I was impressed that, after 30 years, he was willing to take the leap to make such a radical change.   Most college teachers settle into a style early in their careers and make only slight adjustments thereafter.   As Einstein said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”  

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing?  When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique?   What are they doing and how (or why) is it working?  When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher.  Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”

Two

Dr. Shannon Kathryn Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) are coming out with a book soon titled Reflections on Academic Lives.   In this book, they ask quite a number of college professors to look back and describe what advice they wished they had received while they were doing their graduate work.  I provided my answer in a short essay that will be included in their book.  I actually posted my essay – with their permission – some months ago on this blog. 

Earlier this week, I was talking (by email) with my brother and mentioned this new book project.  For many years, my brother was (in my opinion) the world’s greatest middle school principal.  I view my job as relatively easy.  I viewed his job as virtually impossible.  But, he always did it with care and humor and a lot of wonderfully innovative ideas.   He is retired now but he was great at something that still seems to me to be an overwhelming challenge. 

I told my brother about the book being produced by Dr. Orr and Dr. Zavattaro.  I asked him how he would have answered that question.   Here is his response:

“I always tell new people in education to watch every other teacher (or administrator) around you.  Take the time to talk to every teacher you can.  Watch how they deal with parents.  Watch how they deal with misbehaving students.  Watch how they work with their colleagues and deal with time management.  Watch them carefully.  Learn from them.  Then, take what you learn and fit it with your own personality.  Learn from both the good and the bad teachers.  I remember watching my first principal and assistant principal.  I was too young and too green to know that I was watching them, but years later, I took what I learned from them--and many others along the way--and became a better principal.  They were not all great principals, in my opinion, but I learned from them.  Good and not-so-good.   The same is true when learning from other teachers.  I suppose all educators feel this way to some extent, but I like to think that I consciously watched others and learned from them.  Don't be so set in your ways that you can't learn from others.  I have a feeling that many college professors are "set in their ways.”  I saw many professors when I was in college who would not have changed no matter what.”

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing?  When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique?   What are they doing and how (or why) is it working?  When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher.  Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”

Three

I am currently reading the new autobiography by Bruce Springsteen titled Born to Run.   It is great, especially if you are a fan of The Boss.   I am only about 1/3 of the way through the book but one thing has been especially interesting to me.   From his earliest teenage years, Springsteen was obsessed with the desire to become a great musician.  He buys a cheap guitar.  He then watches other performers and comes home to work and determine exactly how those musicians are doing what they are doing.  He is always a student trying to learn.  “Obsession” is the only word that I can come up to describe how much he wants to become a great guitar player and musician. 

I love books like this.  It is too easy to look at someone who is so successful and simply say “they must have been lucky” or “they just had a lot of talent.”  I think that is rarely the answer.   There is something in such people that drives them to keep working.   Interestingly, Springsteen talks about the fact that he didn’t drink or take drugs because those distractions would have gotten in the way of his music.  He was focused.

But, that is not what I want to tell you about.  As Springsteen gets a little older, he forms a band and they drive from New Jersey to California to get work and hone their craft.  One day his band competes with another band for a job.  The other band wins the job.  Springsteen’s comment was classic:  “They were better than us and that didn’t sit well with me.”  Even over 40 years later, you can tell that did not make him happy.   

He didn’t make excuses.
He didn’t blame the person who made the decision.
He didn’t ask for a second chance.  
He didn’t get upset and quit.

He went out and worked to get better.

First, he knew his group had been beaten (“they were better than us”).  Second, that was a motivation for him to do better (“that didn’t sit well with me”).   And, of course, the rest has become history.   

I love the deep down desire for success that he showed in just those few words “that didn’t sit well with me.”  

What’s the Point of These Three Stories?

Unless you are the best teacher in the world, you have more to learn.   As the sign over my desk says, “the road to success is always under construction.”  

Pick a teacher or two in your building who seem to know and love teaching.  Ask them if you can talk with them about how they teach.   Make a list of questions and get them to tell you how they make the magic happen.  Ask them what you really want to know.  Here are a few questions that really seem fundamental to me that every teacher should want to discuss:
--What do you really want to accomplish in your classes--be as specific as possible?
--How do you get students to prepare for class?
--How do you get students to speak up in class and become engaged with the material?
--How do you test so that the questions fit in with what you want to accomplish?
--How do you help students review and organize material after class before they begin to forget?
--What do you do if you have students who do not seem to want to learn?
And many more.


It seems to me that every teacher can learn something important from other teachers.   But you have to have the deep desire that Bruce Springsteen demonstrated to motivate you to get up and go ask.  Otherwise, it is so very easy to settle into a rut and just stay the same throughout your career.   Where would the world be if Bruce Springsteen had fallen back on that tactic?



Monday, January 2, 2017

THE MESSAGE I WANT TO CONVEY BEFORE CLASSES BEGIN



My classes for this coming semester will start one week from today.   One of my classes will be an introductory course with 24 freshmen.   I want to make sure those students are clear about what I want from them.   So, I sent them an email today and I tried to explain things as best I could.   I want to inspire them without seeming silly.   I want to challenge them without scaring them. 

Here (in part) is what I wrote to these 24 freshmen:

“Over the past few weeks, you should have received quite a bit of stuff from me by email.  Read it all.  Think about it.  I want the coming semester to be absolutely great for you.  I want this to be the best educational experience you’ve ever had.   I want you to learn more than you ever thought possible.

“I like to make things crystal clear.  Things simply go better if you understand what I expect from you and why.  As I mentioned in one of my emails, I will do half the work in this class but you must do the other half.  It is your education.   You have to be willing to do half of the work.  That’s only fair.   Someone is spending $60,000 for this education (either through tuition or scholarship aid) and they deserve a $60,000 education.   Heck, it is likely the only shot at a college education that you will ever have.  You should demand a $60,000 education.   This will be a better university when students go to the administration and their faculty and demand a $60,000 education.


“I have also said this before but I’ll say it again.   I do not want boring students.   I want students who have energy, curiosity, and interest.   If all you want to do is copy and memorize what I say, you probably should have stayed in high school.   I think that is a bad habit that some college students have.   If you drag into class looking like a corpse, don’t expect me to be too impressed.   If you can’t manage your time well enough to prepare for class, don’t expect to learn or get good grades.  This just seems like common sense.  I want students who have a burning desire to know more by the end of the semester than they do at the beginning.   I want students who don’t mind working a bit if they believe there are real benefits to be gained.   I want students who want to be challenged, students who pray that they will get called on.  I want students who want to be pushed out of their comfort zones.   I want curious students—curious is much better than smart.   “How does this work?”   “Why is the number 27 here instead of 9 1/2?”   “Why did this company report this information?”   If you have no curiosity about how the world works, college may well be a wasted experience for you.   My very favorite students are those students who read the textbook/watch the videos/read the newspaper and have more questions than answers.


I will start every class by giving you a handout like this one.  It contains the questions that we will talk about in the next class.  I never lecture.  100 percent of class time is a conversation.   If a student struggles in my class, it is virtually always because they are not adequately prepared for the class discussion.   Preparation really is the key to success in 201.  If I ask you “do some thinking about the first three presidents of the US?” and you pencil in “their names were Washington, Adams, and Jefferson” and nothing more than I know you have not done any true thinking (you are back in the sixth grade).   I am looking for something like “I think Adams was a better president than Jefferson because …” or “Washington is an over-rated president because …”   I want college-level thinking.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

Will I Be A Teacher They Never Forget?



Happy Holidays!!!   I hope this semester has been wonderful, one where your students were inspired to think deeply and find joy in learning.  As I often tell my students:  the more you learn, the more the world opens up to you.  So, I hope you helped to open the world a bit wider for every one of your students.  Could any job be more rewarding than that?
**

I needed an old picture last week for a project so I went searching through my college yearbooks.  They have remained on my book shelf, rarely opened, for nearly five decades.   Although I discovered hundreds of scenes of college life, my attention was captured by one tiny picture—about the size of a quarter.  Oddly enough, it was a photo of a sheet of paper—a paper that had 8 words handwritten on it.   The sheet looked like it might have been tacked to a wall.  I have no idea why this particular photo was included in a college yearbook but the words on that paper certainly meant something to me.

“Will I be a teacher they never forget?” 

I don’t know if those words had been written by a student who dreamed of a future in the classroom or by a faculty member who looked to that goal for inspiration.   But, the message has been on my mind since I leafed through that yearbook.  It stands at the heart of what you and I do every day as we enter our classrooms.

How do we make that happen?  That is something that you might ponder over the winter break.  My advice:  Set out to make a real difference in the lives of each student.  Then, your efforts will be worth remembering.

I like having a personal theme for each new semester.  The above words seem like a great candidate for the spring of 2017.  Make a real difference in the lives of the students and teaching becomes the greatest profession in the world.   Yes, the students will probably forget our names over the years but they will carry our influence with them for the rest of their lives.

Will I be a teacher they never forget?   That leads to a simple question with no simple answer:  How can a teacher manage to make a positive difference in the lives of his or her students?  That is a discussion that teachers should have more often.  When is the last time you actually talked with a colleague about how to make a difference in the lives of your students?  As we end the fall semester and begin to look forward to the spring, it is a question worth considering.  Making a difference is a lot more than covering subject matter.  At some point, teaching needs to go beyond content delivery.

I can describe my approach to working with students but that’s because I have thought about it for 45.5 years.  But, in truth, these thoughts only apply to me.  If you are serious about being a teacher your students will never forget, then spend some time coming up with your own insights.  

With that disclaimer, here are four things that I always put high on my list of actions that can help make a real difference in the lives of your students.

(1) – William Faulkner famously said:  “Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.  Try to be better than yourself.”  I think that is a basic message teachers need to convey to their students.  Don’t let them settle for mediocre.  Many are happy to hide their talents.  They focus on their limitations.  A lot of students almost fight to avoid standing out.  Too many would be delighted to accept a B or C and simply head back to the dorm.  

To make a difference in the lives of your students, you have to convince them that they are capable of doing more than they ever thought possible.  Occasionally, I save messages from my students and pull them out when I need to recharge my enthusiasm.   Here’s one I received shortly after a student finished my course.  “You have taught me how to be a better student and how to believe in my own potential to succeed. You have definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, but by doing so, you've helped me push myself to become a better student and person.”  That student never even mentioned whether I taught her any accounting.  It wasn’t about content delivery.

How does a teacher push a student to go beyond their own self-doubts?  First, you have to believe that what you are teaching is extremely important.  If you don’t believe that, neither you nor the students will be willing to put in the serious effort necessary for success.  Second, you have to push the students to work harder and think more deeply and you have to push them every day even when you get sick and tired of pushing.  Third, you have to guide them.  You cannot simply push—you must also guide.   In my mind, teaching is often no more than “pushing” and “guiding.”

(2) – I find the idea of language to be fascinating.  I have heard it said that the ability to use language was one of the most important steps in our evolutionary development.  I can use simple words (spoken or written) to take a complex idea out of my head and move it into the heads of my students.  Isn’t that marvelous?   Almost sounds like science fiction.   But words are necessary.  We do not teach through telepathy.  Students cannot read a teacher’s mind.  To make a difference, you have to come up with an efficient way to communicate with your students.  Without successful communication, you might as well be a picture on a wall.   

My spring classes start in one month but I have already written 2-3 emails to the new students.  I’ll write them every week until the semester starts and almost every day after classes begin.  I want absolute clarity.  I want no one lost and confused.  I want students to understand what I want from them and why.   I am beginning to create the environment that I want for the spring semester:  challenging, interesting, requiring work, and requiring thought.  Just yesterday I described a problem that one of my current students had posed.   It thought it was a fascinating question and I emailed it to my new students.  Company B directs Company C to send some inventory items to Customer A in China.  Company C certainly records sales revenue but does Company B also record sales revenue or did that company do no more than pass along a message.  I didn’t give them an assignment and I didn’t provide an answer.  I just wanted to start tickling their curiosity.

When something goes wrong in one of my classes, I am always reminded of the famous passage from the movie Cool Hand Luke:   “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”     

(3) – To convince students to invest time and effort, a teacher has to explain why he or she finds the material interesting and important.  If it is not interesting and it is not important, why in the world should the teacher take up class time with it?  A teacher should never discuss topics just because they have always been discussed in the past.   Don’t take up class time purely because material is included in a textbook.  The subject matter has to be interesting or it has to be important.  If not, then skip it and move on.  Removing material from a course takes some courage.  But you are the teacher.  Within reason, you have to make the decision on how to allocate class time.  If material is interesting, then share that reason with the students.  If material is important, then share that reason with the students.  They have a right to know why you are taking up their time.

(4) – Finally, and maybe most importantly, it is difficult to make a difference in the lives of students unless you care about them as people.  Yes, college students can be lazy and rude.  You still need to care about them as people or you will never make a lasting and positive difference in their lives.  Trust me, after so many years and so many students, it is easy to view students as interchangeable parts – like various pieces of inventory sitting in front of you.  But, they are not unfeeling robots.   They are real people who deserve a genuine shot at an education.  You’ve probably heard the quote that is often attributed to Mother Teresa but was apparently written (according to Google) by Kent Keith:   “People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.  Love them anyway.”  Maybe those 9 words should be the theme for the spring of 2017.

Will you be a teacher they never forget?

--Push your students to go beyond what they believe they are capable of accomplishing.
--Communicate clearly to them so they always know what you want and why.
--Share your excitement by showing them why the material being discussed is interesting or important.

--Don’t look at them as an anonymous group but rather as distinct human beings.   Learn to care about them even if they don’t always meet your high standards.
**

And, once again:  Happy Holidays.  Enjoy your break!!      Joe Hoyle


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A THANKSGIVING ASSIGNMENT



I read recently an opinion column that stated the obvious:   Americans have become very angry people.  And, it is not just the recent election.  For months (well, more like years), news reports have conveyed an ongoing story:  People across this country are angry and upset for one reason or another.  I am not here to judge whether such feelings are justified.  That is not my point.  I just find the current level of anger especially sad since we are not involved in a world war that is killing millions or trying to live through the horrors of the Great Depression or having to watch our children perish with the bubonic plague or living with rampant inflation that makes our money worthless before we can spend it.

I think one reason for such universal anger is that most people simply don’t feel appreciated.  That is a basic human need that we tend to overlook in our daily lives.  People need to feel that their efforts have been noticed.  If they don’t get an occasional pat on the back, it is easy to be upset.  

So, during this Thanksgiving season, I decided to do something I had never done before.  If you have read this teaching blog for long, you know that I send out a lot of messages to my students.  Here is the one that I emailed to them this morning.  I had never before written to students like this.  It will not do any harm and maybe it will make a small difference in how they look at themselves as students.   Maybe it will help their self-image and their confidence.  That is always beneficial.

--I wanted my students to realize that I really had seen their efforts.
--I wanted my students to understand how much I appreciated them (even though I tend to fuss a lot when they seem to be lazy).
--I wanted to give them a genuine pat on the back.
--And, I wanted them to become a bit more aware and pass along that same message to another person.  The problem is not solved simply by receiving a pat on the back.  You must also be willing to give a pat on the back.

Here’s the email I sent to my students on this day before Thanksgiving.
**

Three Things

(1) – I received a note yesterday from a student who was in my class 10-12 years ago and now lives thousands of miles away.  He said that he wanted to thank me – not for teaching him accounting but rather:  “You helped me appreciate the tremendous value of showing up to class every day ready to engage.”  I liked that comment a lot because it focused on two things that I hope to pass along to all my students:   (1) you’ve got to prepare fully and consistently or your education quickly becomes no more than training for a position as a stenographer and (2) once the class/job starts you have to be ambitious, you’ve got to engage—you cannot succeed by hiding in the shadows. 

(2) – Because it is Thanksgiving and because I received a word of thanks myself, I have decided that I want to pass along a word of thanks to you folks – my 53 accounting students for the fall of 2016.   As you can imagine, over the last four and half decades I have had great classes and bad classes and everything in-between.  I can truly say that your class this semester has been excellent.   Okay, I don’t think the group has any true accounting geniuses (every so often I get one of those) but the percentage of students who have done well this semester has been extraordinarily high.   Usually, I’m ecstatic if half of my students are truly ready, willing, and able to participate in class each day.  In your class, it has almost always been at least 70-80 percent.   When a teacher walks into class and 70-80 percent of the students are prepared and willing to think, talk, and try, teaching is both the easiest and the most fun job in the world.   So, thanks for a great semester (at least so far).  Your willingness to show up to class every day ready to engage has made this a lot of fun for me.

(3) – I received a word of thanks from a student.   I passed along a word of thanks to you.   Why not keep the ball rolling?   Think of a teacher (kindergarten, English professor, high school biology or the like) who was really helpful to you (you cannot do me – I’ve already received my note of thanks for this Thanksgiving).   Then, write them a note or email and thank them.   It doesn’t have to be more than a couple of sentences.  Just tell them that you still realize how much they helped you to become the person you are today.  Put it in your own words – tell them what their teaching meant to you.  My bet is that you will make that teacher's day.   It will only take you a couple of minutes and, trust me, it will make your teacher very happy.   And, if that teacher truly helped you, he or she deserves a word of thanks.  Every person appreciates a pat on the back now and then.   I won’t make this a class assignment.   You should do it because YOU want to do it and because YOU have the initiative to get it done.

Then, next week, take 3 minutes to come by my office and tell me who you thanked and why.   If you don’t show up, I’ll assume your teachers have all been so bad that you could not think of a single person who deserved one word of thanks.   So, do it!!

Have a great Thanksgiving!! 
**

Okay, now it is your turn.  Although I am nearly 70, last year I wrote three of my high school teachers and told them how very much their work had influenced my life.   I only wished I had done it many, many years earlier when more of my teachers were still alive.   Isn’t it time for you to pass along a pat on the back to one of your teachers?


And, as I said to my students:   Happy Thanksgiving!!


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Want to Teach Better – Here’s My Ultimate Piece of Advice



My good friend C. J. Skender is an outstanding teacher at UNC (and genuinely nice guy).  He recently sent me a sheet of “Forever” stamps for my birthday that celebrated the work of Jaime Escalante.  You might already know about Jaime Escalante but, if not, I’ll talk a bit about him at the end of this blog posting.

I often have people ask for advice about teaching and I try my best to say something that might be insightful and helpful.   Unfortunately, it is often hit or miss.  But there is one piece of advice that I really think is the ultimate piece of advice that every teacher needs to consider if they truly want to grow in their work with students.

I was reminded of this by several things I read recently.

Story One:  Carole Bayer Sager has been a well-known writer of popular songs since the 1970s.  Her hits include “Don’t Say You Love Me,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”   She recently published an autobiography (They’re Playing Our Song) that was reviewed a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal.   

While having lunch at my favorite deli that day, I came across the following story in that book review:

“In high school, she and a classmate, Sherry Harway, made a dash for the piano every day after school and tried to emulate the words and melodies they were listening to up and down the AM dial. ‘I began to study every song I heard on the radio, dissecting each one to find out what was that special thing that made it a hit,’ she writes. ‘What wasn’t I doing yet?’


Story Two:  Somehow, I have recently gotten on a list where I receive regular emails full of teaching advice.  They are pretty good.   I try to read them as often as I can.  On October 24, I received one titled “Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Practical Points” by Linda B. Nilson.  It opened with these words.

“We all endorse it and we all want our students to do it. We also claim to teach it. ‘It’ is critical thinking, and very few of us actually teach it or even understand what it is (Paul & Elder, 2013). Research tells us that our students learn critical thinking only after we receive training in how to teach it and design our courses explicitly and intentionally to foster critical thinking skills (Abrami, Bernard, Borokhovski, Wade, Surkes, Tamim, & Zhang, 2008). We have to start by formulating assessable critical thinking learning outcomes and building our courses around them.”

For those of you who might want to read further:  Here are the two works cited.

Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Study of 38 public universities and 28 private universities to determine faculty emphasis on critical thinking in instruction. Available at http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/study-of-38-public-universities-and-28-private-universities-to-determine-faculty-emphasis-on-critical-thinking-in-instruction/598


Story Three:   A few years back, I wanted to get a better understanding of self-publishing so I wrote a book on success (Don’t Just Dream About Success—Stack the Odds in Your Favor) that I self-published.   It was a fun, learning experience for me.  In this book, I related (and discussed) a lot of stories that had influenced me over the past decades.   Here is one of my true favorites.

“Mark Rothko was a celebrated artist who worked during the middle part of the 20th century.  The website for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, provides this assessment of his influence on the world of art.

“’One of the preeminent artists of his generation, Mark Rothko is closely identified with the New York School, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art.  During a career that spanned five decades, he created a new and impassioned form of abstract painting.’

“In 2009, the play Red opened in London before eventually moving to Broadway in New York City and then throughout the United States.  The action is set in Rothko’s studio and consists of conversations between the artist and his young assistant.  Red was recently staged here in Richmond, Virginia.  I am no theater expert, but found the play funny, interesting, and insightful.  Although the entire production is a fascinating look at Rothko’s ideas and personality, one short monologue about a painting by Henri Matisse really caught my attention.  Those few lines have reverberated through my brain numerous times since that evening.

“In this particular scene, Rothko is describing the evolution of the unique style that made his art both famous and influential.  At a critical point early in his development as an artist, he discovered a work that truly intrigued him:  Matisse’s The Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Initially, he was baffled by how Matisse managed to create the painting’s stunning effect.   Unlike most people, Rothko could not let go of the need to understand what he was seeing.  How did the artist produce such a powerful impact?  What caused this mix of oils to be so mesmerizing?  Returning to the museum each day, he stood in front of the painting for hours analyzing Matisse’s techniques and talent.  According to the play, the daily pilgrimage continued until Rothko was able to unravel the mystery to his satisfaction.  He had a tenacious need to see more deeply—a characteristic that enabled him to grow artistically as he began to comprehend the secrets that made this painting great.

“He did not buy a book about Matisse and fall in line with some expert’s opinion.
“He did not take a class on Matisse so that a teacher could describe various theories about the work.
“He did not call Matisse on the telephone and ask for an explanation.
“He did not go online and pull up Matisse’s resume to discover the school where the artist had studied.

“No.  Rothko went back day after day, hour after hour, and stared obsessively at The Red Studio working to penetrate the wonder of its composition.  He was witnessing a work of genius which inspired him so completely that he was unable to rest until he mentally captured that essence.  Only then could those secrets be assimilated into his own artistic talent.  You cannot implement what you do not understand.”

Okay, what is the point of these three stories.   For me, the point is that becoming good at something does not happen by accident.  That’s the ultimate advice I can give to a person who wants to be a better teacher:   Being good doesn’t happen by accident.

--Carole Bayer Sager dissected the hit songs to try to determine what was special about them.
--Linda B. Nilson asserts that you cannot teach critical thinking simply because you say that you want to do it.   If that is the goal, then you have to learn how to do it and build the course entirely around that idea.
--Mark Rothko became one of the most influential artists of the last century because, at least in part, he obsessively spent hours coming to understand what made one painting so very magical.


Story Four:   Anyone who has read this blog knows by now that in 1991 (after about 20 years as a college professor) I switched from being a lecture style teacher to using the Socratic method exclusively.   I have told that story so often that people tell it back to me.  What I don’t tell people is that I spent the summer of 1991 breaking my teaching down into its smallest possible components:   how did I communicate with the students, how did I call on them in class, how often did I call on each one, how did I ask them to prepare for class, what did I ask them to do after class, how did I react to a missed question or a lack of effort, how did I test them, what did I do if I was unhappy with them (individually or specifically), how did I grade them, how available was I to mentor them, how did I motivate them, etc.   I tried to consider every aspect of my teaching.   Then, I tried to figure out which of those components was working and which were not working.   The parts that were working, I kept.   The parts that were not working, I tried to figure out how to fix.

If I became a better teacher after that, it was never because I switched to the Socratic Method.  It was because I invested a few months one summer thinking about every aspect of my teaching.


Story Five:   Okay, who is Jaime Escalante?  For 17 years, he was a high school math teacher in Los Angeles and the subject of the fabulous movie Stand and Deliver.  

I do not remember every detail of Stand and Deliver but Escalante becomes a teacher at a high school that is truly struggling.  In a very tough environment, the students seem lost and hopeless.   But, Escalante convinces several of these students to try preparing for the AP Calculus examination even though everyone else thought that was a useless idea for these students.   It seemed like a totally hopeless goal but, somehow, he managed to succeed, not just with a few students but with virtually all of his students.  I love that concept -- he succeeded with virtually all of his students.

According to Wikipedia, “In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the challenging Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test and all twelve did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed.”


Okay, you say you want to be a better teacher.  Great goal.   Watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me exactly how he did it.  Dissect the movie (to use Sager’s term).   Watch it a couple of times to see what you can catch.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  You are trying to understand teaching at its most fundamental level.  This guy is a true genius at teaching – heck, he has his portrait on a postage stamp.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  Rothko did not become Matisse.  Rothko used the Matisse work as his guide post – so that he could see how the magic was done?   My email address is jhoyle@richmond.edu.  If you truly want to get better, watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me (point by point), how he created that miracle.