Sunday, July 31, 2011

Common Sense

A student that I had in one of my classes last spring wrote me recently for a book suggestion. He said that he wanted to learn more about the nature of business success and wondered what books I might suggest for him to read over the summer. I gave him a few titles that I like and then finished off with one of my very favorite books from many decades ago: Up the Organization.

I made the point to the student that I liked this last book especially because it made so much of business just seem like common sense. The book didn’t try to overwhelm me with weird ideas and theories or complex calculations and assumptions. It just said, in very simple terms, “if you treat people this way, you should get good results.”

After I wrote the student, I started to wonder if I could use the same logic in my teaching. Is there a common sense approach to teaching? The education system in the U.S. gets criticized quite frequently and experts put forth a lot of new suggestions all the time. However, improvement seems elusive. So, for the past 2-3 weeks, I have been pondering what a “common sense approach” to teaching might look like.

Here are some of the ideas that I came up with. (If you have some additional common sense teaching ideas, let me know.)

--The teacher should know what he or she wants to accomplish. How do you decide what you need to do each day if you don’t know where you and your class are going? How do you evaluate whether you are making the progress you want if you are not sure what you want to see happen? Seems like common sense to me. So, as an exercise, write down in (let’s say) 20 words or less what you want to see your students gain from your classes in the fall. I think this is a great way to start every semester.

--Be careful that you are not simply teaching your students to memorize. There’s a big difference between understanding and memorization. As you look at your goal above, does it require anything more than memorization? In the past, occasionally, people would appear on television who were memory geniuses. They would have the entire New York City phone book memorized or the name of everyone in the audience. When I write a test, I always picture that person. If the memory genius can make too high of a grade on my test, I’m not happy with how I’ve written it. I’m not trying to teach memorization so why reward it. I need to be testing more understanding, asking questions that would leave the memory genius completely stumped.

--I never expect students to read my mind. Never. That’s a bad teaching strategy. I tell them exactly what I want from them every single day. There should be no guesswork. I give them very specific assignments and I make sure that they are each of a proper length. Not too long to discourage them but not so short that it doesn’t seem to have any substance.

--I never expect students to do work unless they will eventually (sooner rather than later) see the reason for that assignment. If I ask my students to read a 5 page article for Monday, then on Monday I will question them about that assignment. “In the article you read for today, what did WorldCom do wrong, why do you think they did it that way, and how should they have operated differently?” If an assignment is given but not mentioned later by the teacher, students have every reason to believe they wasted their time.

--If a student is given an assignment and it is not done properly, there should consequences. Students are gamblers. They are constantly weighing out what might happen if they don’t do a certain amount of work. If you ask students to read Chapter One and they don’t and you do nothing about it, then you can certainly expect them NOT to read Chapter Two. That will follow as night follows day. They have now been conditioned (by you) to ignore what you ask them to do.

--When you call on students in class, call on the poor ones the same number of times that you call on the good ones. If you consistently call on John twice in every class but call on Susan only once, everyone in class gets the signal (especially John and Susan). What that exact signal is will depend on you (and why you call on John more), but all of the students will quickly get the message. One of the greatest rewards of teaching is turning a poor student into a good one. That is so much harder to do if you are sending signals that you recognize that some students are better than others. For example, I have a tendency to ask harder questions to the better students and easier questions to the poorer students. That is one habit that I want to break. I’m subtly telling the poorer students that I don’t believe in them and their ability to become better students.

--Care enough about your students as human beings to actually listen to their answers. It is very easy to make a quick evaluation (“this person is totally lost”) and start thinking about the next question you are going to ask. The student talking is a human being and deserves your full attention as they try to piece together an answer to your question. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the pattern of their thought process as they work through the answer. They are talking to you; you should care enough to listen.

Okay, I could probably list 25 more like these. They are all just plain common sense. There is nothing here that every teacher in America could not do starting this fall. However, I’ll bet if you follow these religiously, you would improve as a teacher. Maybe not much, but some. And I have always held that the secret to becoming a great teacher is a little improvement each and every semester. And, to make that improvement, you don’t need to follow some complicated new educational fad. I’m betting common sense will be enough.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And, Now, A Few Words from the Author

In case you are interested, I gave a presentation on teaching back in May at Lebow Businss School at Drexel University. The URL for that talk is below. I don’t know that I said anything in the speech that I have not said previously on this blog but I did put some of it together in a more organized way. The speech is about 75 minutes in length and I talk about why teaching is so important and how each of us can (and should) work to get better.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Garry Trudeau, who writes the comic strip “Doonesbury,” must have some interesting opinions about college education. In this blog, I have written previously about the picture of college education that he paints occasionally (see “Dealing With The Truth” posted on January 23, 2011).

Well, once again, Trudeau has written a strip that I felt went right to the heart of some of the problems we face as educators. In his cartoon for Sunday, June 26, 2011, two students are sitting at what looks like a coffee shop. One student asks: “When is Guy Fawkes Day?” and the other looks at a computer screen and responds with the correct answer in 0.08 seconds. The next question is what is “the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust”? This time the correct answer is provided in 0.14 seconds. The final question is what are “the three main branches of moral philosophy”? Discovery of the correct answer takes a mere 0.09 seconds.

The instant availability of an infinite amount of information leads these two students to ask questions that we educators should be asking all the time:
--Student One: “Which raises profound questions about what it means to be a student.”
--Student Two: “Yeah, like why go to college?”

Okay, this is the point where we should all provide our own personal answers. A college education normally takes four years of a person’s life and can cost up to $250,000. In 2011, have colleges become obsolete as a result of the efficiency of Google, Bing, and similar search engines.

In the cartoon, the students provide their answer. Why go to college? Student One has the perfect answer: “Well, to party. That hasn’t changed.”

And, my guess is that a lot of college teachers are not surprised one bit by this response. Many students seem to believe that parties are the primary reason for going to college.

Is that their fault? Or, is that our fault?

In this blog, I have often argued that too many college classes are built on a “conveyance of information model.” After World War II, when suddenly a lot more people were seeking a college education, a conveyance of information model probably made sense. At that time, other than an encyclopedia, individuals had very little way to get information. In 1951, determining the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust might literally have taken hours if not days.

Therefore, a wise individual would stand in front of a packed room of college students. This expert would rattle on for 50-75 minutes while the students copied it all down.

That probably made sense in 1951. However, this is 2011 and not 1951.

I think the biggest problem that colleges face today is switching from a conveyance of information model to a critical thinking model. And, truthfully, it is much easier to convey information than it is to help a young person develop critical thinking skills.

You have a new school year coming up. What if your new year’s resolution is to develop more critical thinking skills in your students? How would you go about doing that? Where do you even start?

I am going to give a few recommendations that seem to work occasionally in my classes. Perhaps a few of these will help you as you think about the question “why go to college?”

--Give students a reasonable amount of work to do prior to EVERY class and (a) make sure that this work relates to what you actually do in class and (b) hold the students accountable for doing that work. Don’t give your students a free ride—this is their education. They need to do their share of the work but that work has to be helpful to them.
--Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions – the more questions you can ask in a class, the better. I shoot for one per minute on the average.
--Don’t get upset by wrong answers. This is a learning process. If you get many correct answers, you are not asking the right questions. And, make sure the students know that they shouldn’t get upset by a wrong answer as long as they have made a serious effort. If you can get the effort, the rest will follow.
--Ask students what they think of other student answers. If I call on Susan, I don’t want Bill to fall asleep. If Bill knows that I might turn to him and ask “what do you really think of the answer, she just gave?” then Bill is going to pay close attention. I want every student paying attention every minute.
--Don’t ask students questions that you know they know. What good does that do? Your job as a teacher is to help stretch the mental capabilities of your students. If you do that, the students themselves should pay you a bonus. In my classes, I draw a circle and then put an X about 2 inches outside of the circle with a line connecting the circle and the X. “The circle is all the information you already know. The X is what I’m trying to get you to understand. The line is the connection between the two. If you will think about what you know, I honestly believe you can figure out the answer to X without my telling you. It is that ‘figuring out’ that I’m shooting for. It is that ‘figuring out’ that will make you better.”
--When you get to the tests, do the same thing. Ask them questions that they have to figure out. If you are just going to be testing memorization, forget the first five steps in this list because the students will ignore them.

I seriously believe that colleges are going to come under increasing fire over the next few years unless we do a better job of answering the question: why go to college? Personally, I think that answer comes from switching from a conveyance of information model to a development of critical thinking model.

And, to tell you the truth, helping students to develop critical thinking skills is a whole lot more fun (for you and them both) than simply conveying information.