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.”