Saturday, October 16, 2010


If you have followed this blog for long, you know that my favorite saying about teaching is "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it." Unfortunately, it is easy to get trapped into thinking superficially about teaching. “Why are students so lazy?” “Why can’t students read?” “Why do students seem incapable of thinking?” I’m not sure that kind of thinking does anyone much good.

A few days ago, a friend and I had a long conversation about teaching, just a general conversation about what works and what doesn’t work for us. We talked about our goals and our frustrations. When is the last time you had such a conversation? Really, a conversation about how teaching is actually done. Find someone in your building or in your school who truly likes to think and talk about teaching and make it a point to have such conversations on a regular basis.

As part of my recent conversation, the question was raised (now that we are half-way through the current semester) as to what we expect from our students each day. My now we have trained them (either on purpose or by accident). When you walk into your classroom, what do you actually expect to get from your students? If all you expect is for them to sit there quietly and take notes, you will probably get your wish. But, shouldn’t learning require more than that from students? If all students have to do is sit quietly and take notes, then education by television or the Internet is the way to go.

My answer to that particular question, after a bit of thinking, was that I wanted three things from my students.

First, I want them to be engaged. I want them on the edge of their seats ready to participate at the drop of a hat. I don’t like comfortable students. Comfortable students tend to be lazy students. Comfortable students don’t seem to like to do the depth of thinking that I want.

Second, I want the students engaged 100 percent of the time. One of my all-time favorite teaching books is One L. Scott Turow, the author, talks about his first year at Harvard Law School and this famous teacher who taught by the Socratic Method. He made the point that everyone was on the edge of their seats practically holding their breath until the first student was called on. The teacher had the habit of interrogating that one student for the rest of the hour. Therefore, after the first question, every other student started to daydream or think about other classes. When I read that 20 years ago, I thought it was ridiculous. I don’t want one student to be engaged. I want all of them to be engaged all of the time. My classes are 50 minutes long – I’m convinced that people (even young college students) can stay focused for that period of time.

Third, as I have said often in this blog, I want my students prepared. I think 100 percent of good teaching has to start with student preparation. College is for deep thinking and complex learning. When I ask students about a capital lease or a deferred income tax, there is no possibly way they can come up with a legitimate response off the top of their head. This has to be something they have thought about and considered in advance. Without the preparation, what are we able to do in class? Darn little.

It was a good conversation about teaching. I went back to my own teaching with some new insights into what others think as well as what I think. You don’t need those conversations every day but it is hard to get better as a teacher without some of those conversations.

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