Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dealing With The Truth

Before I start today, I want to repeat something I wrote recently. I have been creating these blog entries now for 54 weeks and, in that time, we have had 28,634 page views. That is fantastic but it is something that could never have happened without your help, without your passing along the URL to other folks who might be interested in teaching. So, once again, thank you for telling your friends about this site as well as you neighbors, relatives, coworkers, enemies, casual strangers, and even aliens from another planet. This blog goes nowhere without your help.

In the well-known movie “A Few Good Men,” the Tom Cruise character yells “I want the truth!” and the Jack Nicholson character responds “You can't handle the truth!” Great line.

When it comes to teaching, college professors will often assert that they want the truth about what is happening in class but I’m not sure they can handle the truth.

I was reminded of this exchange this morning in the Doonesbury cartoon in my Sunday newspaper. A college math professor (with a bow tie and suspenders, no less) is explaining “a very complicated proof. You can’t possibly track it without fully concentrating.”

Then, beginning to sound much like Tom Cruise, the professor starts getting to the very heart of the problem many of us face in college education today. “And yet it is perfectly obvious to me that most of you are either online or texting right now. Which is puzzling because on a pro-rated basis, the lecture you’re not listening to right now is costing you or your parents $175. So I’d love to know – what’s the thinking here? Why are you so happy to receive nothing for your money?”

Hmm, I wonder if he really could deal with the truth. Easy to ask the question but not so easy to deal with the answers if people start telling you the truth.

Isn’t it fascinating that a Sunday morning cartoon could cut so close to the heart of college education these days? But, does this guy really want the truth? Could he handle the truth if the students began to stand up and tell him the truth? Now, wouldn’t that be a fascinating cartoon. One by one, the students stand up and say “Sir, I’m not paying any attention to your lecture because . . .” and they give him the truth. (As an aside, if you have never watched the video made by the Kansas State students about education, you really owe it to yourself to watch it

it’s at that point that you begin to hear the truth from students.)

When it comes to education and our classes, how many of us really want the truth that much? The problem for our all of us is that if we are given the truth, then we feel some moral obligation to take action. It’s easier (as the cartoon professor does) to just imply that the students are to blame. I hear that all of the time when I am out and about giving teaching presentations.

What do I think the truth is? Here’s my guess at the truth. I believe that students underperform in classes for one or more of three basic reasons.

(1) – they feel no sense of urgency (“I’ll defer thinking about this stuff until I have to”)
(2) – they are bored
(3) – they are lost and have a sense of hopelessness

If you can solve all three of these issues, your school will build a statue of you and put it in the quad.

For better or worse, these are issues that a teacher can address. You are not a helpless victim. But you have to want to improve before you are willing to take real action. And, you must realize that these are complicated issues that can only be addressed over a period of time by some careful thought and planning.

I’ll talk about urgency today and defer student boredom and being lost to some later time. If you can add a tiny bit of urgency to any class, I think you will see immediate improvement.

When I chat with people about any goal they are trying to achieve in life, I often hear lines like “I have trouble getting started” or “before I know it, I’ve wasted an amazing amount of time.” If you can add in a bit of urgency, most people begin to get up off the couch and get moving. A bit of urgency goes a long way in getting people to work. Without a sense of urgency, there are just so many more interesting things in life to do.

Okay, most of you who read this blog will be teaching a class in the next couple of days. How have you inserted urgency into the equation so that your students are more likely to prepare for class and then pay close attention during class? If your answer is that “I expect my students to prepare and pay attention in class,” then I have a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan that I want to sell you.

I can give you two quick ways: one that I use in my classes and one that I don’t use. However, think of ways that your own teachers added urgency.

(1) – I teach by means of the Socratic method so each day I give my students 3-10 questions they should be able to discuss at the next class. Then, as soon as they walk in for the next session, I start peppering them with questions based on those original “conversation starters.” If students are absolutely sure they will be called on, it creates a sense of real urgency – they are more likely to prepare and pay attention. It really does work. It removes the general student feeling that they are just there to take notes. They know that they will be put on the spot.

(2) – If I had a class that was too large for the Socratic Method, I would change my strategy. At the end of each and every class (the last five minutes), I would ask the students to write out answers to one or two questions that were covered in the preparation work or within the class discussion. Those answers would count X percent of their overall grade. You will be surprised by how carefully students pay attention if there is a grade effect added at the end of the class. Suddenly, this material has an urgency to it – some question is coming up in just a few minutes that has to be answered.

A related issue to urgency is grading. If all of your students know they are going to get either an A or a B, why should they ever feel a sense of urgency? I truly believe there has to be some possibility of making below a B in a class or students will have no reason to be concerned at all. I usually give 50 percent A’s and B’s in my classes but I also give 50 percent of the grades that less than that. The fact that a student is not going to get an automatic A or B in a class does, I believe, push them to feel a bit of urgency about the material.

What’s the truth? In your case, I don’t know what the truth is. But if you feel that your students are underperforming, one issue to address is “urgency.” Students are human beings; without a sense of urgency, there is just not much reason to get up and do those things that need to be done.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The $10 Million Question

There is an old question that teachers sometimes ask their students. In fact, I have asked it of my students on occasion. A student will come in and say “I just cannot seem to do well in your course. No matter what I try, nothing seems to work. I’ve tried everything and I keep getting bad grades. I just cannot do it.”

The teacher’s response is straight-forward “If I offered you $10 million, could you make an A in my class? You make an A and you will get a check for $10 million.”

If the student is honest, they usually respond “Well, yes, for $10 million, I would do absolutely nothing but studying night and day for your course and I imagine that I could make an A. I am not sure that I could make 100 but I could get an A. I would become obsessed for $10 million.”

The response from the teacher is obvious: “So, your problem in my class is not ability. It is only a question of motivation. If you could become motivated enough, you could make an A.”

It is a great story because so much of it is true. In the initial discussion with the student, there is the implication that the student cannot do well WITHIN THE CONFINES OF WHAT THE STUDENT IS WILLING TO DO. The student is not willing to say it but he (or she) is willing to study X hours or put in Y effort and when that doesn’t get the desired grade, the student becomes frustrated. Students are usually willing to put in a little more time but what they are looking for are tricks that will get them a better grade with about the same amount of energy or effort. And, when things don’t work, it is always relatively easy to simply fall back on “I just cannot do this stuff.” It is always easy to give up.

Okay, let’s turn the tables. I often give teaching presentations and a few (actually, quite often, many) of the participants will complain that the students simply won’t learn regardless of what they do. No matter what they do, they are disappointed in the results and often get student evaluations that seem too low.

I’ve never done the following at a presentation but at some point I’m going to try it. “Let’s assume that some rich graduate of your school walks in one day and offers to establish a $10 million teaching prize. At the end of the coming school year, every student will be asked the following question ‘rate each of your professors on the quality of what you learned in each of your classes this semester.’ The professor with the highest rating will be given the $10 million prize.” (Let’s assume that no one cheats and bribes the students.)

Would you want to win that prize? Oh, of course, unless your school pays better than mine, $10 million would be an incredible amount of money—much more than most of us make in two lifetimes.

Key question 1 – could you win that prize in your school? What I hope your answer would be is “for a chance at $10 million, I would certainly give it a try. For one year, I would do whatever it takes to get my students to learn and learn deeply. I would become obsessed with student learning.”

Key question 2 – what would you actually do in hopes of winning that $10 million teaching prize?

Once again, I don’t think this is a question of ability. I think all teachers can be great. I want to repeat that thought: I believe all teachers can be great. I think it is a question of motivation. For a shot at $10 million, I think every teacher would do things a lot differently than they do today. (For example, I bet class preparation time would go up significantly. I think a lot more time would be spent on writing and grading tests.)

I think one of the real weaknesses in college teaching today is that there is no real motivation for trying to be great. Yes, we all have personal pride and we all understand the importance of what we do. But, it is tough to rely totally on internal motivation.

But $10 million would be a whole lot of external motivation. So, here is the question that I want you to ponder—if there were a $10 million teaching prize offered at your school, what would you do differently in hopes of winning that award? Make a list of everything that you would do differently.

That list provides you with an automatic roadmap for becoming a great teacher, for becoming the kind of teacher that students talk about 20 years after graduation. That list tells you how you can become the best teacher in your building. There are no secrets to being a great teacher—look at your own list.

Then, try a few of those things starting today. You don’t need to start with all of them. Be satisfied with a few changes. See if they actually do work to make you a better teacher. You have to become a better teacher first before you can become a great teacher.

It is not a question of ability. People give me scores of excuses for not being the best teacher in their building. Forget those excuses. You’ve got to get over that. If someone offered you $10 million to become the best, what would you do?

Then, decide what part of that list you are willing to do first and get started.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Here We Go Again

My classes begin anew on Monday and, although I have done this now for 40 years, there is still a real sense of nervous anticipation. One of the great (and maybe scary) aspects about college teaching is that no matter how good or bad one semester is, you have to start all over again with each new class. Whether I was the greatest teacher in the world in the fall or the very worst, that has nothing to do with the young people who will walk into my classroom on Monday at 9:00 a.m. I cannot rest of my laurels. But, I am also not held back by the mistakes I have made. On Monday, everything starts over. It is a brand new semester.

Where do I want to focus my attention on Monday?

Last summer, our school hired a new dean. About two months into the fall semester, she asked to attend one of my classes. We picked a day and time and she showed up and sat in the back. It was an introductory class full of sophomores.

I was lucky. The students that day were great. They had prepared themselves for the discussion and immediately got into the give and take of a Socratic Method class. I barely did anything that day as they debated and argued about the wisdom and rationale for various accounting standards. I posed a question or two and then directed traffic as they hashed out the particulars.

At the end of the class, the Dean was extremely kind as she commented: “Wow, that was impressive. How did you manage to do that?”

My response was just the first thing that popped into my head: “I have spent every minute in this class for the past two months training these students in how to learn and how to think about this stuff. You are just seeing the result of that training.”

Here is my Day One advice to every teacher who reads this blog: Train your students to do what you want them to do. I want my students to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions. On Day One, I start training them to do these things. Trust me, students do not do these things naturally. If it is going to happen, you have to train them. They have been well trained before they get to you to take notes and memorize.

This goes back to one of my fundamental questions about education. Are we (a) teaching subject matter or are we (b) teaching students how to learn and think, with our subjects serving as a focal point for that process? My goal, at least for the last decade, has been to train my students (to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions) so that—by the last day of class in April—they are capable of studying an entirely new issue on their own (something they have never seen before) and then coming up with a viable and reasonable resolution on their own.

Consequently, when I think about Monday’s class, I am not particularly concerned about beginning to teach the students my subject matter. We’ve got a long time for that. However, I am very concerned about training them to learn how to learn, training them to do what I believe will help them to understand why this material is important, how it works, and why it works in a particular way.

Will it work on Monday? Who knows. Every semester is new. More importantly, training students is an incremental process that takes patience. If we can make a small first step or two on Monday, then I’ll be pleased.
One other quick comment. Last night, we ordered some Chinese dinners that I brought home from a wonderful little restaurant in a place called Bon Air, Virginia. My fortune cookie fortune was “People will live up to your expectations of them.” What a wonderful fortune for a teacher to get right before the start of a new semester.

I have great faith in my students. When I walk in on Monday, I will fully believe that those faces starring at me are going to be the greatest students that I’ve ever had. I expect, by the last day of class in late April, that they will have learned an incredible amount about financial accounting. When it comes to education, I am just a complete optimist. Oh, I realize that we won’t leap tall buildings every day but I do think those students are going to be just wonderful and that together we are going to create a dynamic and engaging learning experience. We will accomplish much and actually enjoy the process. (And I get paid for having so much fun.)

People will live up to your expectations of them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Take a Moment to Relish What You Did

This morning I received an email from one of my favorite former students who is spending this year studying in Europe. Not surprisingly, she asked the traditional question: how was your semester?

After 40 years at this job, my initial reaction was to write back: “Oh, you know, same old same old. Been there, done that.”

After a few seconds of reflection, I realized that I didn’t like that attitude. I needed to change my tune. If that is the way I view my work, then maybe it is time to find a different job. I could make a lot more money being a banker or a lawyer and still be able to say “same old same old” about the work.

Being a teacher is the most wonderful job in the world. It gives you the opportunity to affect dozens of lives every day when you walk into the classroom. There is never an unimportant moment. An opportunity like that should not be taken for granted. When a semester concludes, every teacher should pause and celebrate what they have been able to accomplish. We might all be better teachers if we focused more on the importance of what we do.

This past semester, I worked with 64 students in my three classes. There were about four of those students who seemed determined to learn nothing. No matter how I coaxed and threatened, they wouldn’t do any work. They wouldn’t try; they wouldn’t even pretend to care. As a friend of mine says about teaching: “you can’t save them all.”

But that left 60 students who did try and, hopefully, learned a lot. Not too many of them made the grade of A but they worked hard and gained (I believe) a considerable amount of knowledge. And, hopefully, they came to think a little deeper. And, they learned the importance of adequate preparation. And, they got a bit better at analyzing issues and coming up with reasonable solutions.

Think about that – I had a positive influence on the lives of 60 college students. I would like to believe that they walked away from my class better off than when they first entered back in August. Those 60 students will always know some things about my subject matter because we worked together. As a teacher, I changed their lives.

If you truly stop and think about it, that is a great feeling. It is one of those “Wow!!” moments that doesn't happen often enough in life.

Moreover, when you think about it that way, you begin to realize what a huge responsibility you accept when you become a teacher. Your job is to change the lives of your students. Whether you do the job well, adequately, or terribly, you impact those students – you help to establish what they know that they will carry with them throughout their lives.

In teaching, I think we sometimes get depressed because we fixate on those (hopefully, few) students who won’t try despite our best efforts. We don’t spend enough time thinking about what we do accomplish. Teaching becomes such a regular part of our daily lives that we can start taking the whole process for granted.

Don’t do that!! Every teacher who reads this blog has the chance to change the world by impacting dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lives every semester. You help your students become more knowledgeable, better able to function in the adult world.

Name me one other profession that changes more lives than the teaching profession. Yes, there are professions that get paid better. But, I don’t think there is any profession that is more important to our society. Where would all the doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientist, ministers, engineers, and the like be without teachers? Without teachers, we would all still be living in caves.

So, take a moment to think about the lives you changed this past semester—the number of students who are different solely because of your influence. You have helped to open up the world to the people who were in your class. You have challenged those students to do better, make more of themselves, have higher aspirations. You have shared the joy of your subject matter with them.

What did you accomplish in the fall semester? You helped to make the world a better place because you are a teacher.