Thursday, August 25, 2011

Addressing Bad Habits

A lot of your college students have been students for most of their lives. They have been trained by all of the teachers who came before you. Unfortunately, the students have not always been well-trained. They pick up bad habits. And, they don’t even realize they have those bad habits.

So, on my first day of class (this past Monday), I tried to alert my students that I wanted something very specific from them and what I wanted might just be different from what previous teachers had wanted. No matter how successful they had been in the past, they needed to realize that they might have to adapt.

“Here’s exactly what I want from you this semester. I want you to get to a point where you can be presented with a fresh and unique situation and then figure out how to respond or act based on what we’ve learned previously or what you have uncovered in your studies. It seems so simple: (a) fresh situation, (b) figure it out, (c) based on what we have learned or you’ve found. However, most students have been brought up in an educational system that often rewards a ‘copy and memorize’ mentality. I have students with 4.00 GPA’s who become very frustrated with me because they copy down every word in class and memorize them all and then cannot figure stuff out on a test and do poorly. They are frustrated because copy and memorize has worked so well for them in the past. And, maybe, in the 4th grade, that was appropriate. But, this is a college education.

“Students who stress copy and memorize often prepare too little for class. Why prepare if you are just going to write everything down? They want to learn by following along. They come to class a blank slate—ready to be inscribed. I don’t think that’s what a college education should be. You’ll be in the ‘real world’ in another 18 months. Nothing in the real world as far as I know is copy and memorize so I see no reason for my class to be that.

“If I am going to give you a completely fresh situation to figure out on a test, then I need to help you learn how to do that before the test. That’s only fair. So, every day I’ll try to present you with some new stuff and we’ll try to reason it out together based on your preparation and what we have already learned. In fact, if we are successful, you’ll get pretty darn good at this before the end of the semester and you’ll wonder why you ever copied stuff down for memorization purposes.

“But, you have to be willing to walk into class very prepared and you have to be willing to try to use what we have studied to come up with viable solutions. 'Figure it out' are my three favorite words in education. You can’t tell me ‘this makes my brain hurt.’ You can’t beg ‘just give me the answers.’ In fact, most of the time, there are no ultimate answers. Most of the time, you and I (hopefully, mostly you) will be coming up with logical and reasonable possibilities.

“To me, that’s what a college education should be.”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher

Occasionally, when I am driving home from work, I’m able to listen to a show called “Fresh Air” which is on NPR (National Public Radio). In it, Terry Gross (or an associate) will interview some interesting person. The discussions are often fabulous.

One day last week, I was able to listen to the show for just 4-5 minutes but, during that time, I heard something that really caught my attention. I have thought a lot about what I heard ever since that time and pondered its connection with my dealings with students. The person being interviewed was Brad Ausmus who retired recently as a catcher in baseball. He played in the major leagues for 18 years and is 7th on the all-time list for the number of games caught by one person.

If you follow baseball at all, you know that occasionally (especially when things are going badly) the catcher runs out to the mound for a quick talk with the pitcher. Probably like every other baseball fan, I’ve always wondered what the catcher can possibly be saying. Well, the person doing the interview on Fresh Air asked that specific question: “When you go out to talk with the pitcher, what do you tell him?”

Unfortunately, I was driving in my car so I couldn’t write down the words verbatim but here is the gist of what Ausmus said. “I always had only one goal in mind when I went out to talk with the pitcher. When I left him, I wanted the pitcher to absolutely believe that he was capable of getting out of the situation that he was facing. If he didn’t believe he was capable of taking care of the problem, we didn’t have much chance.”

What a fascinating lesson: I only had one goal. When I left him, I wanted him to believe that he was capable of getting out of the problem.

No wonder the guy stayed in the major leagues for 18 years.

We talk with our students all the time. Often, they have a problem – they have failed a test or they don’t understand what’s been covered or they have been lazy or busy and fallen behind. Frequently, it is their fault entirely.

It is easy to get really frustrated with students. There are times when I want to look into the student’s eyes and say “you messed up. This is all your fault. You’re an adult; let’s see how you get yourself out of this problem.”

That might well make me feel good (maybe we are all a bit sadistic) but I’m paid to teach students not to put them in their place. I didn’t become a teacher to berate young people for the mistakes they make. I became a teacher to help them succeed – not half of them, all of them. Over the years, I’ve talked with hundreds of teachers. One thing I have noticed is that, if you are not careful, it is easy for teachers to get into an “us versus them” mentality. “Students are lazy.” “Students have to be told everything.” “Students will cheat if you don’t watch them every second.” But in teaching, we are all on the same team. The catcher may be really upset at the pitcher but he still wants the pitcher to do well and win.

As a new semester begins, I’m going to try to be a bit more like Ausmus. When I talk with students, I’m going to think of them as pitchers and me as the catcher trying to get them back on top of their game so we can both win.

When students come to me with issues/challenges/problems, I’m going to attempt to (a) define the problem so we all understand, (b) tell them how I think they can and should resolve the problem, and (c) make sure they believe they are capable of fixing the problem. When they walk out of my office, I want them to believe they are capable of solving the problem. That certainly doesn’t mean that I’m going to do the work for them. The catcher doesn’t go out and offer to pitch.

In baseball, the goal is so obvious: we want our team to score more runs than the other team. In education, the goal may vary somewhat from person to person but it usually is pretty close to: we want every single student to learn the material and understand how to use that knowledge to have a better and more fulfilled life. When a student gets off the track to that goal, it is our job to show them how to get back on the track and leave them believing that they are capable of doing just that.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Very First Question

My first class of the 2011-2012 academic year will be next Monday at 9 a.m. If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I only teach by using a Socratic Method approach. I distribute questions in advance and then discuss those or related questions for the entire class time. I want a thoughtful conversation. This allows me to stick with my 50-50 goal (I do 50 percent of the talking and they do 50 percent of the talking).

I am a big believer that it is important to get each new class off to the proper start. You set a tone at the beginning that carries through for the entire semester. If you are funny, they’ll expect you to be funny from now on. If you do 100 percent of the talking, they’ll assume that this is the way you teach every single day.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tone I am creating during that first class. By now, I have already sent my students 4-5 emails so I fully expect them to be prepared on Monday morning and ready to go. I like creating a bit of urgency right from the beginning – this is important stuff and we cannot afford to waste our time. I believe that myself so why not convey this message.

This semester I have focused a lot of my attention on the very first question that I am going to ask. What do I want my students to think about immediately starting right at 9:00 a.m.?

I may change my mind by Monday but the question I plan to ask (as I type this) is: “if our class works perfectly this semester, if you and I both do all that we can possibly do and things go great, how will you be different at the end of the semester?”

Only a very few words but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. Why do I like it?

--First and foremost, it focuses on the change that can occur in them. Students typically think about class in terms of learning. I’m not nearly as interested in learning (which can sound like the memorization of the Gettysburg Address). I want them to think about class in terms of how it will change them. In December, as a result of this class, I want them to walk out as different people. How is my class going to make that happen? I think “learning” simply understates the potential impact of a college class. I want them to be different; I want them to be better people in some definable way. And, I think they are more likely to get there if they consider what that change may be.

--Second, I want them to connect what they do with that change. Benefits don't happen by accident I want the students to realize that their “work” and their “change” are closely related. It is not just the passage of time that counts. That only makes you older. It is the work carried out during the semester that creates change in the student. I want them to realize that the more they work, the more they will change (and grow).

--Third, I definitely want my students to understand that the learning process is a team effort. It is not my job alone. Likewise, it is not just them operating by themselves. “If you AND I both do all that we can possibly do . . .” I often tell my students that class is like performing a dance such as the waltz. One party leads but both parties have to do an equal share of the work. A dance where only one person does any real work is an awkward mess. However, a dance where both people work together can lead to wonderful results. I inform students that I will do my half of the work but I will absolutely not do more than my half. It is their education and they have to be willing to do their share of the work.

--Fourth, I want the students to know that there is risk involved. I never never never take it for granted that a class will be a success. For me, “if” is always a scary word. “If this class works perfectly this semester,” sends the message that things might not work well. Benefit is not guaranteed. Students often seem to feel that if they merely persevere until the last day, they will accrue whatever benefit that is available. School = Perseverance = Success. No, some students gain immensely in my class whereas others obtain literally no benefit. I want to show students the opportunity that is available to them. But it may not happen There is a great benefit to be gained but only if we both do the work necessary.

Now, I have a question for you. And, I’d love to hear your response: When you walk into class on the first day of the semester and you are ready to get started (you’ve gone over the course outline or whatever housekeeping you have to do), what is the very first question that you ask your students. I’m definitely curious. Let me know – I might change. Send me your “first question” at

Saturday, August 13, 2011


In 9 days, I will begin my 41st year in the classroom. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to do it all once again. Teaching is just the greatest profession.

One of the things that I love about teaching is that there is always more to learn. It is such a complex art. No matter how long you’ve done it, there are insights that suddenly seem brand new. At this time of year, even things you’ve thought about before suddenly seem totally fresh and invigorating. Unless you just let yourself, there’s never a reason for a teacher to fall back on auto-pilot.

As the new academic year is set to begin, it is not a bad idea for every teacher to pause and consider what actually makes up good teaching. Not “average” teaching or “mediocre” teaching or “getting by” teaching but good teaching where you make a real difference in the lives of your students.

I went to a movie today with my daughters. The movie was titled “Buck” and was about a man who has spent his life training horses, especially challenging horses that didn’t want to be trained.

As I watched the movie, I was struck by what a great teacher this man is. He was marvelous at getting his “student” (the horse) to learn what he thought they needed to know. He made the process look simple.

You can learn so much from teachers like that. If nothing else, it reminds you of how good it feels to be a teacher.

As I watched the movie, I tried to analyze what he was doing and why it worked so well for him. I actually tried to memorize as much from the movie as I could. As soon as I got home, I wrote down everything I could remember about his teaching methodology because I wanted to see what I could learn.

The movie was a wonderful lesson on good teaching. I’m sure I forgot a ton but here is what I wrote down.

--The “student” has to trust the teacher or the student will simply not want to do what is being asked. Everyone wants to stay in their own personal rut. The natural inclination is to resist when someone asks you to do something new, especially if it requires work. His whole teaching style was based on developing trust right from the start. He never did anything that would cause his student to mistrust him.

--Several times he talked about that neat moment when the teacher and the “student” get on the same wave length. When the student comes to understand what is wanted and is willing to do it. At that moment, the teacher and the student start operating as a team. And, in education, if you can create that team, the potential for learning is beyond imagination.

--(This may be the thing that he talked about the most.) The “student” is a product of all the teaching they have had previously. Don’t blame the student for bad habits that prior teachers have created. Instead, have patience and work to retrain those habits. In my case, my students have had 20-30 teachers before they ever get to me. Some of those teachers may have taught the students to memorize so that learning seemed totally boring and useless. Some of those teachers may have taught the students that the development of critical thinking skills was a waste of time. Thus, you can’t get upset at students for believing that learning and thinking are boring and a waste of time. That may be the training they have received. Instead, you have to show them what you want and why it is important. “Here’s what I need for you to do and why” goes a long way in education.

--Allow the “student” to make mistakes because that is how learning takes place but don’t let the student become scared of making mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as the student learns from the experience. But making the student feel stupid so that they are less inclined to try the next time is not beneficial.

--Work to help the “student” feel good about themselves. In life, nothing succeeds like success. In education, the student who feels good about what they are doing and what they are learning is always going to keep getting better and better. In the movie, Buck would constantly praise the horse for every action that was correct. When the horse did the right thing, there was instant and obvious reinforcement.

--For the “student,” the last two minutes of each session are the most important. You always want the student to walk out with a positive feeling about the experience so that it will carry over to the next class. That positive feeling is not created in the first 48 minutes but in the last two minutes.

--Always be firm with the “student” without being cruel. You are in charge; you have to direct the experience. Whether horses or people, the student wants to have a clear understanding of what is expected. Make sure that information is conveyed clearly and firmly: “Here’s exactly what I need from you by the next class” is always better than “Be prepared” or “Read Chapter 9.” However, no animal or person responds well to cruelty. You want the student to fly, not crouch in fear.

If I were to go back to the movie, I’d probably pick out another half dozen lessons on teaching. These were the ones that my memory latched on to in this first viewing. Did I already know these? Certainly, there’s nothing magic here. However, it is always great to be reminded. And, it is especially great to see them in actual practice and not just in theory.

Most of all, it was just nice (as a new school year gets ready to begin) to watch good teaching. For me, that is always inspiring.