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.

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