Greetings!! I trust you are ready for a wonderful new school year. At this time of the year, I always feel like I can leave my mistakes from the previous semester behind and start anew with refreshed hope and enthusiasm.
To celebrate the new year, I wanted to discuss two words that I believe can make anyone a better classroom teacher. Not immediately, but over the course of a semester or two. I am not sure that anything works immediately. Progress has to be slow and steady.
Back in August of 2014, I wrote a blog entry that mentioned the following article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I just think the importance of confusing students cannot be over-emphasized and is worth a second look.
I define “lecturer” as someone who does 80 percent or more of the talking in class. If you have read this blog over the past few years, you know that I was a lecturer for the first 20 years of my teaching career. I eventually changed to the Socratic Method because I found lecturing to be frustrating. One of my biggest irritations was that on those rare occasions when the lecture was especially clear, student learning would fall off. I would explain some complicated topic and the students would all nod their heads in vigorous agreement and then they would fail my tests. That just irritated me to death especially because I did not understand why. That is the reason I am now bald.
In one paragraph, the article from the Chronicle explains why clarity does not work so well in education:
"It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen," he said. "One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before."
Confusion, within reasonable parameters, has the exact opposite effect on the students. They realize they don’t know everything. They start paying closer attention. They start looking for differences between what they thought they knew and what is being discussed. They start adding knowledge and understanding. They begin to reject incorrect notions that they had previously held.
Obviously, I don’t mean “unplanned confusion” where everyone winds up lost in the wilderness. I mean “planned confusion” where you start attacking what the students thought they knew. I tell my students that their knowledge is like Swiss cheese. It looks solid to them but it is really full of holes and my role is to point out those holes so we can fill them.
As a result, in my own classes, I have a common saying: “I’m paid enough to ask you questions. I’m not paid enough to give you any answers.” That irritates the students because they are used to a system where clear conveyance of information has always been the goal. But, from my vantage point, they learn a whole lot more and get better grades if I can get them confused.
Word One: “Confusion” – as you get ready for the spring semester, don’t worry so much about being clear and understandable. Plan some confusion.
My Dean bought our faculty the book Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning. I have not finished reading the book yet but one of their very strongest points is that learning is greatly enhanced by the process of retrieval. The authors talk about this over and over.
I was so taken with the idea of retrieval that I sent the following note to my spring students along with several suggestions on how they could go about retrieving information on a regular basis.
“I have recently been reading a book titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. As you might imagine, I am always deeply interested in how to help people learn more effectively. I have found this book to be very insightful. One of the things the authors say frequently is that reading material over and over is not very helpful in getting it you’re your memory. According to them, it is the retrieval of information that really solidifies learning.”
It is like exercise at a fitness center. You put the information into your brain and then you pull it out and use it. Then, you pull it out again and use it. Every time you do this, the understanding becomes stronger.
So, as I get into my planning for the spring semester, I am going to work on more ways to force/encourage my students to retrieve the information from their brains. I am working on building that more into the class experience. One of the questions I like to ask (which again often irritates the students – irritation is apparently one of my goals) is: How did we answer this type of question just 48 hours ago – heck, that’s not so long ago, surely you remember how to figure this out.”
Word Two: “Retrieval.”
When I talk with folks about teaching, they often seem to believe that massive changes would have to be made to get any improvement. Nah, I don’t believe that. I think if you focus on two simple words like “confusion” and “retrieval” for a semester you might be surprised by how much deeper the learning goes.