Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Do You Tell Your Students?

Virtually all of the blogs that I have written over the past 8 months have been directed toward teachers. My goal has been to encourage teachers and give you folks something to think about that might stimulate a bit of improvement.

It crossed my mind this morning to wonder: who encourages the students? Being a student is not easy. They study hard and are constantly under pressure to do well on papers, tests, class presentations and the like. They are human; they need encouragement—especially when things are not going well.

Who encourages students? Well, I guess it should be their teachers. You need encouragement; you need assurance; you need positive feedback. And, so do they. If you genuinely want to teach students successfully, some small part of the job (I believe) must be to encourage them to do the work that is necessary.

Do we do that? Or, do we simply ignore that aspect of the teaching process and then complain when students don’t live up to our expectations?

I thought about this as I was writing an essay this morning to distribute to people who are studying to take the CPA Exam. I fully understand how much encouragement they need but I don’t always have the same insight on the struggles of my own college students. So, I think I will also share this essay with the students who will start my class this coming Monday.

Teaching has to be more than an effort to convey information. That makes education sound like a robotic process. And, neither teachers nor students are robots. Think about how you encourage your students in their difficult times. Here is one way that I plan to do it.

“I have been reading a book ('Mao’s Last Dancer') about a Chinese peasant boy who works incredibly hard and eventually becomes one of the top ballet dancers in the world. A lot of the book focuses on his early training when he moves quickly from extreme poverty to a national dance academy where he is pushed to learn ballet—something he does not even understand at first.

“In the book, he talks about how difficult it is to learn each dance movement. He is shown a new step or a turn and his first reaction is ‘I cannot possibly do that. Someone else may be able to do it, but not me.’

“And, sure enough, for the longest time, he cannot master the new move. He tries and fails, he tries and fails, he tries and fails. However, what really sets this young man apart from the other dancers in the academy is that he keeps trying even though he continues to fail. The other dancers practice three times each day (in a building without air conditioning) but he practices six times each day (at times breaking into the studio at night so he can practice alone). The other dancers are satisfied with being okay; he wants to be great. His desire is as large as his talent. His desire may be more important than his talent.

“So many times, after he has failed and failed and failed with a new dance movement, he’ll have a break-through and suddenly he can do it. It just happens—almost without warning. With enough practice, one day he can actually do what he had originally thought was impossible.

“The word that I really like in that story is ‘break-through.’ That is the way learning, especially when you are dealing with a very difficult topic, usually happens. Learning is just full of epiphanies. You miss the question, you miss the question, you miss the question and suddenly you have a break-through. Without warning, you see how the pieces fit together to form the correct answer. Once you catch on, the process frequently seems rather simple: ‘Why did I not see that before now—it is obvious how it works.’

“But that is just the way learning often works—you have to miss and practice, miss and practice until eventually you’ll have your own personal break-through and you will find that you have mastered the concept. That is a wonderful feeling. In learning, there is little that feels better than that quiet pause followed by ‘Oh, I see it now.’

“In learning, too many people give up too quickly. They never reach the ‘break-through’ point. The work is too hard or the failure is too devastating. They don’t have enough confidence to keep pushing or they don’t want success badly enough. They walk away saying ‘I just cannot do this.’

“Here’s what I want you to know: Those frustrations are normal; they are no reason to quit. Failure is a natural part of getting to success. Yeah, it is tough to miss questions but that is just the way the learning process works. If you keep plugging, if you keep pushing yourself, you will have a break-through and suddenly you’ll say ‘Oh, I see it now.’ And, that is going to feel great!”

3 comments:

  1. interestingly enough, accounting classes feel like this a lot.

    When I was going through intro accounting, it was so hard. Especially cash flow statements. Man, so tough.

    Now that I've been helping my brother out, I think, "Wow, this is so easy!" (especially after having taken both intermediate accounting classes and seeing that the basics in intro to financial can get more complex) Each class I take, there are things that I go, "Ugh, this is so tough," and barely scrape through it but somehow, over the summer or winter or whatever, there's a breakthrough and things get easier to understand.

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  2. Such is one of the reasons that I literally give my Managerial and Cost students work that is due EVERY day - they might not quite get it the first time, or the 2nd, or the 3rd, but often get that "aha moment" in class and then can do it on the 4th try. A very frequent thing I hear is that students will do my crazy problems and get them all wrong and feel bad, but, often they find out later that after trying over and over they can do it later - like on the test.

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