Thursday, June 27, 2013

Charles Dickens Would Approve

From Joe Hoyle:   On January 1, 2013, and again on June 1, 2013, I wrote entries on this blog about my experience at linking a Government Accounting course with a Victorian Literature class.  I found it to be an interesting experiment with some excellent outcomes.   If you want to read more about what we did, the following link will take you to an article in the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education.    If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I am a strong proponent of experimentation in education.   This one did not require a committee or a mandate or a strategic plan.   We thought the idea might work and (with the support of my dean) we just tried it to see.  I believe college education would certainly improve with more such interesting experiments.


Since I have already referred to Victorian Literature above, I will make a comment about something I recently read.   A few weeks ago, I started Hard Times by Charles Dickens.    Dickens could be brutally sarcastic about elements of daily life that he found wanting.   Apparently, he was not necessarily a big fan of certain educational practices.   At the end of Chapter Two of the first book of Hard Times, he describes a teacher (with an incredibly unusual name – another characteristic of his writings).

To quote Dickens, this teacher “had taken the bloom off the higher braches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek.   He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the people, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass.   Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild.  If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

That last line jumped out at me like a bullet:   “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

Is it possible that a person can just be too smart or too well educated to be a good teacher?

Well, hopefully not, but it does present some challenges:

--If you understand material especially well, it is often difficult to comprehend why certain aspects are not readily apparent to a 19 year old college student.   In such cases, it becomes easy to skip over essential parts of the process because “anybody can see how these two steps connect.”   What is clear to a teacher is not necessarily clear to a student. 

--If you love the material (which is often why people study particular subjects so intensely), it is often difficult to comprehend why other folks might not be equally enamored.   Thus, although reading 300 pages of dense material over a week-end might be a thrill for you, a 19 year old college student might present a bit of resistance.  What is fun to a teacher is not necessarily fun to a student.

 --If you are truly excited about the material, it is often difficult not to talk on and on and on about it.   You then find it incomprehensible that a 19 year old college student could possible nod off in the middle of your monologue.  What is enthralling to a teacher is not necessarily enthralling to a student.

Obviously, you cannot unlearn material or become dumber simply because you think it might make you a better teacher.   No, but you can work to see the course more through the eyes of a student.

As I wrote last year, I like to take classes over the summer – especially in topics where I know absolutely nothing – just to help me stay aware of what it feels like to be “the dumb one in the room.”   Last summer, I took tai chi (and am still taking tai chi) and I have struggled terribly to do things that my teacher does with ease.   He makes a movement with his hands and arms and legs and then I do what seems to be exactly the same thing.   The teacher then shows me at least 9 different reasons why I am off.   Luckily, he is very patient with me.

This summer, I am taking a class in pottery.   I know nothing about pottery.   I know less about pottery than I know about tai chi.

At the first class, the teacher handed me a one-pound piece of clay and showed how to shape it into a cone.   When she did this shaping, it looked like something a 4 year old dog could have done.   It could not have looked easier.   So, of course, I messed it up completely.   She actually had to take the clay from my hands and toss it aside.   Without professional work, my effort was beyond help.   I wanted to bang my head against the wall.

For me, at those special moments, I become a better teacher.   I can actually feel how difficult it is to do something for the very first time and not the 10,000th time.   I needed to be shown again (and again and again).   I needed for the teacher to do it incredibly slowly.   She did and, eventually, I was able to turn my clay into a cone and get it on the wheel and come up with something roughly like a cup.   For me, every step was a trial.   Nothing came easy.   It was just a whole lot tougher to be a student than I would have anticipated.   But, when I had made my cup, I was thrilled.   The educational process had worked its magic!   I had managed to succeed (or take a small first step toward success).

You have a lot of summer left.   Why not find a class like tai chi or pottery or some such and take it?   Go in as stupid as possible and see what you can learn.   Remember what it feels like to be “the dumb one in the room.”

I believe this is a good suggestion.   I hope you will try it.   From my experience, the typical response is:   “that’s a great idea” and then it never gets done.   That’s just human nature.   But it is also why improvement is often so difficult.   We want to get better; we truly do.   But we don’t necessarily want to do the things that might bring about such improvement.   Prove me wrong -- go sign up for a class.

Friday, June 7, 2013


As I have mentioned before, on August 7, 2013, I will be giving a 75 minute presentation about this blog at the Annual Convention of the American Accounting Association in Anaheim, California.  If you are going to be at the convention, I hope you’ll stop by and chat.   I’d love to meet each and every one of the people who read these essays.  I’ll be there for several days so let’s get together over coffee and talk about teaching.  

In preparing for this talk, I have gone back and looked at some of the 170 posts that I have written over the years.   To me, it is interesting how many of these posts push teachers (including me) to think about the last day of class and what the teachers want their students to have accomplished.   Until you visualize what you want your students to do by the end of the semester, it is hard to know how to guide them.   Over and over, you see that theme in my thoughts on teaching.   You can accomplish very little without knowing specifically what you want to accomplish.   Notice the word is not “vaguely” but “specifically.”  

One of my very favorite posts was “Training Dogs” which I put up on this site on March 4, 2010.   (It is available at ).   This essay talks about how people go about training dogs and makes what I thought was an obvious point:   training students uses the same basic techniques that you would use in training dogs.   It seems easy when you talk about dogs; in fact, it seems like basic common sense.   I am not sure why it appears so much more complicated when working with college students.

In this earlier essay, I ask readers to come up with 8 steps for training dogs.   They are all obvious but my very first one is:   Have a firm understanding of what you want them to accomplish.”   Again, that seems so self-evident.   You cannot teach a dog to roll over if you are not sure what you want the dog to do.  

Unless the goal is clear in your mind, the dog will just be confused.  

Unless the goal is clear in your mind, the student will just be confused.  

I think a lot of teachers who struggle are simply not sure of their goal.   Maybe vaguely they are but not specifically.

Okay, how do you put this into practice?   I was working with one of our younger teachers this week and I gave him an assignment that might be helpful to you.   I told him to spend several hours over the summer writing a “hypothetical but absolutely perfect final exam” for his fall classes.  In other words, if the students did exactly what he wanted them to do for the entire semester, what would he want them to show him on the final exam?   That seems like a legitimate assignment.   If the students learned exactly what he had hoped for, how would they be able to show that on the final exam?    It seems to me that there really needs to be a connection between those final questions and what they ultimately need to know.

So, don’t write your final exam at the end of the semester to ascertain grades.
Instead, write your final exam now before the semester even begins as a guide for what you want your students to be able to do by the end.   Don’t be vague – make those questions as specific as you possibly can.   That's the real purpose -- to add specificity to your goals.

Okay, you probably won’t ever give this exam.   That’s not the point.   The point is to help YOU (not them) to visualize what you want them to be able to accomplish at a high quality level.

Visualize the perfect semester where every class goes great and every assignment is done well and every reading is carefully analyzed.   How would the students be able to demonstrate that they had done really well for you?  

Surely, you would not fill up this hypothetical exam with memorization questions.   That just cannot be your ultimate goal.  Well, if that’s not the goal, what is your goal?   What would be several perfect questions to allow students to show you the intense depth of their understanding?

I have an idea that this might be a very interesting summer project.   I have held before in these essays that most teachers spend way too little time thinking about testing and how it can be used to help pattern student learning.   Here’s a chance to give some deep thought to that process.

By the time school starts back in the fall, can you have a hypothetical final exam created that would enable your students to show what they know and understand?   If so, that can really serve as a road map for how you attack each day of the entire semester.   Anything that won’t get the students moving toward the point where they can answer those hypothetical final exam questions will quickly start to seem trivial to you.   And, that’s probably a good sign.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Good Suggestion

Before I get started today, I want to mention that this blog went over 83,000 page views a few days ago.  I truly am thrilled by that level of traffic and wanted (as always) to thank everyone who passes along the URL to someone else.  I believe that we teachers CAN improve teaching in this country and in this world but only by being willing to share ideas and resources.   We need to think and talk more about teaching, learning, and education.   There should be genuine joy and excitement in the exchange of teaching/learning thoughts.   I hope the blog encourages those activities.

Two nights ago, my wife and I went to see the play “Red” here in Richmond about the artist Mark Rothko and his paintings.  It was an excellent play and I enjoyed it all.  But there was one very short section that I have thought about 1,000 times over the last 48 hours.   In the play, Rothko is talking about how he learned to become an artist and develop his unique style.   At a critical point in his development, he saw a painting by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that really intrigued him.   The work was so interesting to him that he went back day after day and stood there for hours on end just trying to figure out how Matisse had done it.   He stared at each part of the art work until he was able to unravel the mystery.

He didn’t check out a book about Matisse and read it.
He didn’t take a class on Matisse and have someone explain the work to him.
He didn't read about Matisse in Wikipedia.
He didn’t call up Matisse on the telephone and ask for a tip.

He went back day after day, hour after hour, and stared at the work to figure out how it was done.

I can’t even begin to tell you fascinating I found those two or three sentences.

I had a genuinely wonderful teaching experience this past semester.   As I discussed in a blog posting on January 1, 2013, I helped set up a class in Victorian Literature for 10 second semester senior accounting majors.   We read and discussed Great Expectations, North & South, and The Mill on the Floss.  

I served as the teaching assistant for this class.   In truth, this meant that I read each book and sat in on the class and participated in the discussions.  

The best part, though, was that I got to watch an excellent teacher at work each day.   The class was taught by Dr. Elisabeth Rose Gruner of the English Department here at the University of Richmond.   For 75 minutes each week, I got to observe a master teacher at work.   What a great experience.  What a great opportunity.

Dr. Gruner and I teach using very different styles.   My goal, though, was not to become her.   Rothko certainly didn’t want to become Matisse.   He wanted to understand how Matisse managed to create art.    I wanted to see how Dr. Rose taught.   I wanted to see how she managed to create learning.   Mainly, I wanted to see how she could get 10 senior accounting majors to learn, appreciate, and enjoy the writings of Charles Dickens and George Eliot.   That sounds absolutely impossible but she did it.   And, she did it well.  

Each day in class, we would start with some seemingly casual conversation about one of the novels and the author.   Some days we would actually read passages aloud together so we could hear the sound of the words.   Often, Dr. Gruner would pose a question about the reading for that day and we would spend 10 minutes or so writing out our thoughts.   We would then talk about what we had written.  It was a fabulous class.  All 10 students were deeply engaged every day.

I was interested in many “how did she do that??” questions.

--How did she get the 10 accounting majors to actually talk in class about literature without having them feel threatened?
--How did she get students who were incredibly busy to actually read long Victorian novels?
--How did she get the students to appreciate a writer like Charles Dickens who seems 500 years removed from the style of a current author?  (Great Expectations is certainly not Harry Potter.)

What did I learn?   I’m not sure I can tell you.   I know that Dr. Rose listened to the students wonderfully well, much better than I ever do.    I know that she was able to convey her genuine love of those books while still showing her frustration with some aspects of each work.   I know that she was not obsessed with getting to a predetermined answer in such a hurry which often inhibits interesting student ideas.    I know that she was great at asking questions to make the students think.   I will always remember those 10 accounting majors having an animated conversation on the last day of the semester when Dr. Rose asked:   “Well, if you don’t like the way George Eliot ended The Mill on the Floss, how would you have ended it differently?”  

I’m 100 percent convinced that I am a better teacher for watching her teach.   This wasn't my goal but I'm still delighted.

Would you like to be a great teacher?   Don’t read a book.   In truth, I’m not even sure that reading this blog is much help.   Don't ask for tips or clues.

Here’s my main advice, especially for new teachers.

Go find the very best teacher at your school even if that person teaches something like Victorian Literature.   Don’t find the most popular teacher or the funniest teacher.   Find the teacher who is genuinely the best.   If you talk with students, you'll quickly hear descriptions of a few, truly great, teachers.  

Ask that teacher if you can sit in on class for three solid weeks.   I don’t think one day is really enough to catch on to what is really going on.   Rothko didn't look at the Matisse once.   He came back day after day.

Before you start your class visits, write down several “how is the teacher doing this?” questions that you want to answer over these three weeks.

--How is the teacher getting the students to participate rather than sit on their hands?
--How is the teacher getting the students to prepare before they come to class?
--How is the teacher getting the students to think more deeply?
--How is the teacher getting all of the students involved and not just the ones who like to talk?

Then, during every class for 3 weeks watch what happens.   Try to look behind the superficial to see what is really going on in the class.

You don’t want to become that teacher.   That’s never the goal.   You want to understand how that teacher is creating the magic that we refer to as learning.   That will make you a better teacher.