Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Favorite Quotes about Teaching – Number Five

This blog went over 45,000 page views (since its inception) this past Monday. As I wish I could do every day, I want to thank everyone who passes along a word to friends and colleagues about the blog. Obviously, there would be no page views at all without you folks. I firmly believe that we need more conversation about teaching, learning, and education if we are going to solve the problems of our world. I appreciate your helping my blog to be a part of that conversation.

Here are my previous four 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.”
“If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you have a boss.”

I think those four quotes are very insightful and have led me to think more deeply about my own classes.

However, the quote for today goes beyond that – it is one that has had a genuine impact on my own teaching. I didn’t merely think about this quote; it has changed my way of teaching. Almost nothing else that I have ever read has impacted my teaching more.

I fuss all the time that our educational system is based on a “copy and memorize” philosophy rather than a “learn to think” philosophy. In class, we speak while the students try to stay awake and write down what we say. Superficially, the process is helped if we are amusing or especially dynamic but it is still “copy and memorize.” Then, the night before each test, students try to cram all that written data into their heads.

Usually when I describe traditional education in this way, people quickly nod in agreement. Unfortunately, knowing what we don’t want is not the same as knowing what we do want. If we don’t come up with a viable alternative to a copy and memorize structure, it quickly becomes the fall back position.

My quote for today comes from my favorite book about teaching, the wonderful “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain. Bain studies several outstanding classroom teachers in the US in hopes of identifying what they did in their classes and why it worked so well. Here (from page 40 of my edition) is one short discussion.

“One professor explained it this way: ‘It’s sort of Socratic . . . You begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up.’ Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

I cannot think of a more beautiful description of the education process “and then you begin to help them untie the knots.” I couldn’t ask for better words to describe what I want to do in my teaching. After I read those few lines, there has not been a day in my teaching when I didn’t want to puzzle my students and then help them untie those knots.

Yesterday in class, I asked my students to explain the difference in redeeming a gift card from iTunes and a gift card for a massage. They were puzzled. Is this even relevant to accounting? And, then slowly, we worked together to untie the knot.

Last week in class, I asked “if you order 4,000 cakes from a bakery on Monday to be delivered to a large wedding on Saturday, under what condition would you report some liability on Wednesday?” They were puzzled (really puzzled) but slowly we worked together to untie the knot.

Two weeks ago I asked “if you sell a CD player in Year One that has an $8 coupon off the purchase of a CD in Year Two, why can you possibly report this one event in three entirely different ways?” They were puzzled but slowly we worked together to untie the knot.

It is being puzzled enough to want to untie the knots that leads students to do the thinking that is necessary to achieve understanding. The quote from Bain’s book helped me to realize that.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Note to a Former Student

One of my former students recently earned her Ph. D. and is starting her career as a college professor. My favorite students have always been those who have become teachers.

She taught her first classes this past Thursday. What an exciting time – walking into class for the first time as a member of the university’s faculty. She dropped me a note and mentioned that she wanted her students to talk more than they did in the first class. Most of us seek more interactive education. Students, though, often prefer to sit, listen, take notes, and memorize. That is a less demanding approach to learning. Plus, it is a system that our students have probably experienced often during their years in school. Below is my response to this new faculty member.

Here’s one piece of fatherly advice that I would offer, especially if you want to get your students talking more. You may actually remember this strategy from when you were in my class as an undergraduate.

Always use a seating chart and then move everyone around in class every 2-4 weeks. When I started doing this about 10-12 years ago, I was amazed by how much the energy level would improve every time I moved people around in the classroom.

My excuse to the students is that I want them to get to know everyone else in class. And, that is very true (I am going to deliver the sermon at a wedding in April for a couple of former students who met when I changed the seating chart around one day and placed them side by side). I always tell my students that one of their primary goals in college should be to learn as many people as they possibly can and I’m trying to help the cause.

However, there is more to using a seating chart than just that. Students like getting comfortable and, when they get comfortable, they are much more willing to do sloppy work. Some students prefer to sit on the back row where they are protected from you by the distance. Others prefer to cluster into groups of their friends. Put three people from the same sorority or fraternity together and all three will do poorer work.

One of your responsibilities as a teacher is to protect your young students from falling into bad habits.

So, every couple of weeks, I break out a new seating chart and rearrange the entire class. Psychologically, it is helpful to let students know that you have that ability; it reminds them that you are in charge.

If certain students need more attention, you can slide them to the front. If two students spend too much time talking to each other, you can break them up. If all the members of a certain club sit together, you can disperse them throughout the room.

Most of all, it just helps the class avoid falling into a rut. Over the course of the semester, it is easy to have a “same old same old” feeling in a class. Okay, it might not work for you but certainly does for me.

Break a leg (as they say in the theatre).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Note To My Students

I started a new semester last week. Last night, at the end of that first week, I sent the following email to my students. Now that they see what we are doing, I want them to understand my goals. I want them to see what I am trying to accomplish. I want them to believe that the work that I am asking them to do is worth the effort. To achieve your ambitions, your students have to buy into the process. If they do the work just because they are scared of you or your tests, the amount they can achieve is truly limited.

To: Accounting Students

From: JH

Okay, you’ve had my class now for a week. It is obviously a different approach. Some people like it and some people hate it. I can live with that. But, I do want you to understand what I’m trying to do. I think you’ll do better if you see what my goals are. I realize that you are more used to lecture and memorization and may not even see what benefit comes from what we are doing.

If you have a free ten minutes this week-end, I’d like for you to watch the following video which comes from one of my all-time favorite movies (The Paper Chase). This is a movie that had a great influence on my thinking about education. (By the way, I have a picture of Professor Kingsfield on the back of my door so it is the last thing I see when I walk out of the room to go teach you accounting.)

There are four things that I want you to notice in particular

---Professor Kingsfield tells the class “never assume anything in my class.” Good advice.

---Professor Kingsfield tells the class “you’ll never get to a right answer because there is always another question. Good advice.

---Professor Kingsfield tells the class “you walk in with a scull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer (well, for us, like an accountant).” That is a goal worth some effort. That is education at its best. That is an experience worth having. That is a priority that can change your life.

---Most importantly, I want you to see the difference in “Mister Hart” from the beginning until the end. When he walks through the door at the end of the video, he has matured in so many ways. And, that is what I want for each of you. You will be a better person if you can learn to think better and the world will also be better. Memorizing accounting will not make you a better person but learning how to think about accounting just might.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Favorite Quotes about Teaching – Number Four

Before I write about my next favorite quote about teaching, I have a quick announcement. I know that a lot of the folks who read this blog teach accounting. As most of you probably know, I am the coauthor of an Advanced Accounting textbook (McGraw-Hill) and an Introduction to Financial Accounting textbook (Flat World Knowledge). Over the past 6-8 months, I have spent an incredible amount of time helping to create the second edition of the Financial Accounting textbook (with C.J. Skender of UNC). That second edition will be coming out in the next 4-5 weeks. The book was very successful in the first edition but (as you might imagine) I’d love to increase that adoption rate for the second edition. We didn’t make any huge changes but we must have made 1,000 small tweaks. I was pleased with the first edition but I’m truly ecstatic about the second. I know it is a cliché but we set out to build a better mousetrap. For example, it is the only Socratic Method textbook that you will probably ever see.

We wanted to produce a book that would interest and excite every student who was studying accounting. If a student gets interested and excited about any topic, the learning process becomes so much easier. The textbook is free online while the paperback version only costs students about $40.

If you would like to receive a copy of the second edition when it comes out, drop me an email at Give me your name, your mailing address, your school, and when you will be teaching Financial Accounting. I’ll make sure you get one of the first copies of the second edition when it rolls off the press.

I seem to pick up quotes about teaching everywhere I go. My fourth favorite quote comes from a very unlikely source. I eat lunch occasionally at the Jimmy John’s deli that is near my campus. They have a lot of interesting signs on the walls but one always catches my attention:
“If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you have a boss.”
I will sit and think about that quote for an entire turkey sub.

I don’t think you should ever be rude or mean to students. That is not appropriate behavior. I also don’t believe that meanness helps the learning process. However, I don’t think you have to treat students like delicate flowers either. I feel that one of the kindest things you can do is to be truly tough on your students. Don’t you want to make them better? How do you make them better without challenging them?

When a student is wrong, I don’t see any reason not to say so.
When a student seems to be loafing, I don’t see any reason not to say so.
When a student is not thinking deeply enough, I don’t see any reason not to say so.
When a student is not giving you their best, I don’t see any reason not to say so.

I know teachers who will tell me “I could never be too critical of a student; I might hurt their feelings.”

Bah, humbug.

Again, I don’t see any reason to be mean but if a student gives me a dumb answer, I don’t see any reason not to tell them right then that I think it is dumb. Or, at least, tell them they can do better. Or, challenge them to think harder.

We often seem to forget that the students who are under our charge will be out in the real world in 1-4 years and the real world can be completely unmerciful. I’m not in the least bit sure we are doing our students a favor if we treat them too kindly.

When I think about my 41 year career, I have never once wanted to be considered “a kindly old professor” or “a swell guy.” Instead, I’ve always wanted my students to believe “he was always fair but he sure as heck did push and challenge us every minute of every class to do better. He was really tough and demanded our best.”

I simply believe our entire school system would be better off if every teacher was tougher.

One of my favorite questions in class is “if you had a job and you were in a business meeting and you gave that last answer, what would your boss say?” I think that is a very legitimate question for college students. And, most students will look extremely sheepish when you ask them that. Most of the time, they know when they have handed you a dumb or unprepared answer.

If a student gives you a bad answer and you smile politely and nod, what has that student learned from you? They have learned that lack of preparation and shallow thinking are adequate for success. Is that really the lesson that we want our students to take from our classes into the real world?

So, the next time you get an answer in class that you don’t like, ask yourself: How is the best way to push this student to do better as they move toward the real world? Just remember - if you accept dumb answers in class, don’t be surprised by the sheer quantity of dumb answers that you start to receive.

Jimmy John’s says: “If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you have a boss.” What I would like to see that quote change to is: “When you eventually have a boss, you’ll be so happy that you had that truly challenging teacher.”