Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number Three

As my friends will tell you (or my wife, for that matter), I’m not a terribly modest person. It is a fault of which I am aware. So, I am a bit embarrassed by my third favorite quotation about teaching because it comes from, well, me. Yes, I am quoting myself. But, in truth, it is a quote that I like. And, it is a quote that I genuinely believe can help make any person a better classroom teacher.

I was reminded of this yesterday in two emails that I received from former students. This past semester, I worked with 65 students and 11 of them earned the grade of A. As I mentioned in a recent blog entry, I wrote each of those 11 to pass along my congratulations and to ask them to write a short essay on how they earned that A, an essay that I will pass along as guidance to my class in the spring.

Yesterday, two of those students separately mentioned my tendency in class to throw out random questions and then direct them to “figure it out.” (They both said something like “when Professor Hoyle tells you to ‘figure it out’ you really do need to figure out how to figure it out.”)

I think you can make any class better by simply uttering those three words (“figure it out”) as many times as possible during class. In fact, if you don’t need to provide that instruction at least once every day, I think you are missing a wonderful opportunity to engage the students. After all, what are critical thinking skills but the ability to take a quantity of information and then use it to figure something else out? And, a student's critical thinking skills are made sharper and sharper as you ask students to figure out more complex issues.

I believe every class should have numerous times where the “teacher” throws out seemingly random bits of data and asks the students to assimilate that information in some logical form to figure out some other result or consequence. That is true, I feel, whether you are teaching biology or religion or Shakespeare or, like me, accounting.

--Here’s what we are facing. What should we do? Figure it out.
--Here’s what just happened. Why did it happen? Figure it out.
--This work is considered one of the most important in history. Why is that the case? Figure it out.

What I like about “figure it out” is that it clearly sends a signal to the students that you are not interested in having them regurgitate memorized lines. You really are interested in making use of what has previously been covered.

Nothing does that better than turning to a student and saying “you don’t need me to tell you the answer. You’ve already got the information you need to come to a logical conclusion. Figure it out.”

And, now, to reiterate, here are the first three of my favorite quotes about teaching:

“The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."
“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”
“Figure it out.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number Two

In 1980, I started writing my Advanced Accounting textbook. I was so young and innocent that I really didn’t understand that writing a textbook by myself of that size and complexity was almost impossible. However, after 3-4 years of intense writing (I remember one Christmas day when I sat typing on my little blue portable typewriter trying desperately to finish the project before it was out of date), I managed to complete the book. Several editions later, I added two wonderful co-authors and the book is now going into its 11th edition as the market leader.

When I finished the first edition of this textbook, I wanted to add a quote at the beginning to put forth my feeling about textbooks and education in general. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find a quote that I liked. I was about ready to give up on the quest. One day I went to get my hair cut and was talking to the young woman who was cutting my hair. I told her about my search for the perfect quote and she casually responded “I have a quotation calendar on my table – why don’t you see what the quote is for today?”

I glanced over and was just stunned to read a sentence from the writer Christopher Morley:

“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”

That was exactly how I felt about the textbook that I had just written and that was how I felt about education as a whole. I copied the quote down and it has appeared at the beginning of every edition of Advanced Accounting over the past 28 years.

I am a big believer that colleges and other schools have a bad obsession with teaching “stuff.” In class, we just pour out facts and figures and the poor student can’t write fast enough to get it all down. We like to teach “stuff” because it is easy to test and easy to grade. There are never any arguments; students either know the stuff or they don’t. Consequently, we graduate students with heads crammed full of stuff who cannot always do the thinking necessary to make use of that stuff. I think the world suffers a bit as a result (maybe more than a bit).

I’m in my 41st year as a college teacher and, year by year, I get less interested in teaching stuff. However, I get more interested (my students might say obsessed) with trying to get them to do their own thinking. They are bright folks – if they learn to think clearly and logically, they can figure the stuff out for themselves. That's exactly what I want for them.

How do you get away from teaching “stuff?” How do you encourage students to do their own thinking? Well, you probably already know my answer: Ask them questions and keep at them until they come up with reasonable answers.

--What is going on in this situation?
--How did we get into this mess?
--What are our alternatives?
--Which option would you pick?
--What are the potential benefits and problems?
--What information do you have available and what use can you make of it?
--What have we done before that might be helpful here?

The questions can go on forever and (trust me) they can make your students very frustrated. But that just means they have hit a wall that they need to break through if they are ever going to think for themselves. I have a saying that drives my students crazy when I respond to their queries: “I’m paid enough to ask questions; I’m not paid enough to provide any answers. That’s your problem.”

And, over the years, my students have come back over and over and said "I'm so glad you taught us in that intense questioning style because it has helped me so much in life after school."

Go through your class materials day by day and be brutally honest – how much of it is just teaching “stuff?” Is that what you really want to do? Is that really what your students need from their classes?

If I can paraphrase Christopher Morley, I can’t think of a better education quote than: The real purpose of my class is to trap the student’s mind into doing its own thinking.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Real Loss

The world of education lost a truly wonderful teacher this past week. I had only known Tom Hindelang for a year or so but I cannot remember meeting another person who so loved teaching. He truly understood the power and importance of education and my life is better for having had the opportunity just to be around his enormous enthusiasm. You could not talk with Tom for long without getting excited yourself and wanting to be a better teacher.

This article gives you a sense of this man and his love for students. He was truly a wonderful human being.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number One

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number One

(I’m writing this in the middle of a final exam. I figured I might as well do something useful while I sit here.)

I am a person who likes quotes. I have numerous books of famous quotations and I’m surprised by how often I read through them. They can be inspirational; they can make you think. In each book, there are always several quotes that I find touching or meaningful. Certain of those thoughts seem to have been lifted directly from my brain without me ever having formed them consciously. I am surprised by how often I find myself muttering “oh, yeah, that’s what I believe.”

There are a number of quotes about teaching that I really like. Over the years, they have come to mean something special to me as I try to do my job well each day. They have helped me better consider what I am attempting to do in this life as a teacher. Several days ago, I decided to write a blog entry about several of my favorite quotes on teaching. After some consideration, I decided that entry might well be far too long. I’m not trying to create Hamlet here. As a result, I decided to write short essays on each of my favorite teaching quotes. Please feel free in the “comments” below to add your own favorites.

As everyone who reads this blog must know by now, I teach using the Socratic Method. I love to structure my classes around questions, questions, questions, and more questions. In fact, my Financial Accounting textbook is written entirely in a Socratic Method style. I find that if I ask questions (in class and in the textbook) students are able to get away from trying to memorize and start to ask their own questions. Through the learning process, they come to the point where they know enough to pose really insightful questions. And, hopefully, they become curious enough about what we are doing so that they actually start to ask those questions and seek the answers themselves.

Knowledge plus curiosity equals questions. (Joe Hoyle’s formula for learning.)

Each semester, I know that my class is moving in the direction that I want when I walk in and hands all over the room are raised to ask questions. The questions that really impress me are those that take what we have covered in class or in the textbook and move forward. The students are taking the next step on their own: Where does this topic go from here? How can I use this information to solve some problem?

If the questions are basic and easily figured out, that is still okay because it is a step in the right direction. However, what I want is the question that begins “We covered this in our last class and I was wondering if we can use that same logic to ….”

So, here is my first favorite quote. About two months ago, my elder son sent me an email saying that he had read a quote in a blog about home schooling that he thought I would like. Sure enough, I loved the insight:

“The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."

Notice that the word here is “learning” and not “teaching” which is, I think, the key to the quote.

We traditionally think about the learning process from the perspective of the teacher but this quote focuses the emphasis where it should be: on the learner. What do I want from my students? I want them to be so curious that they can and will ask sharper and sharper questions as they learn more about each topic. If they become genuinely curious about the topic, everything else kind of takes care of itself.

The quote here is not about the teacher; it is about the student. I ask questions in my classes to prime the pump. A questioning atmosphere leads students to start asking their own questions. When that happens, the learning process can quickly evolve from memorization to something quite wonderful.

Favorite Quote Number One: “The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

One of My Favorite Days

Okay, I post a blog entry like this about every six months but I think it is important enough to be redundant. If you ask your students to leap tall buildings in a single bound and they manage to do it, I think you owe it to them to acknowledge what they have accomplished. Simply putting an anonymous A on a grade report doesn't seem to properly recognize those students who have done truly outstanding work.

Every semester, when I finish my grading and I sit down and write this note, I am amazed by how good it makes me feel. I had several truly outstanding students this semester and I wanted them to know that I did notice. I did recognize that they worked incredibly hard and learned an amazed amount. I noticed and I wanted them to know that I noticed.


Dear Mr./Ms. XX,

I just wanted to let you know that I have finished grading the final examination and computing course averages. Only six students in my two Accounting 201 classes earned the overall grade of A for the semester and you were one of those six. Congratulations!! I am very pleased for you. It was a very difficult class (and a tough final exam) but your work was really outstanding. You very much deserved the A grade. I had 47 students in Accounting 201 this semester but only 13 percent managed to earn an A. I really believe that every student in these two classes was capable of making that grade but it did take a consistently strong effort throughout the semester and you accomplished that. Good for you! I’m very pleased. You should be proud of yourself. You managed to get the grade. Many came close but you earned it with your excellent work.

As you might know, I would like for you to do me a favor. I always want more of my students to shoot for the A and make it. Frequently, though, they seem mystified by the challenge. They are never really sure what I want from them. Too often, students take an entire semester simply trying to understand what I want them to do. What does it take to be great? I will have another Accounting 201 class in the spring. I’d like for you to tell those students how you managed to earn your A when so many others did not. What did you do that set your work apart? I would very much appreciate your writing me a paragraph or two (as soon as you can) on the topic – how I made an A in Professor Hoyle’s class. What was your secret? What worked for you? What information can you pass along to the next group of students that will help them do better? I really want more than 13 percent of my students in the spring to make an A and you can help. I'll pass along your advice and, hopefully, it will make a big difference.

I’d like your paragraph as soon as possible. There are only two rules: take it serious and be totally honest. Beyond that, what else could I want?

Again, congratulations!!! You did the work and you did it well. I enjoyed having the opportunity of working with you and I very much appreciate your excellent effort. I hope to work with you again at some point in the future.