If I offered you $1,000 to teach my dog (Fido) to roll over, how would you go about doing it? Even if you have never taught an animal to do anything, do you think you could come up with logical and reasonable steps? Sure you could. For that kind of incentive, my guess is that we would all probably do a pretty decent job. It might take awhile but we could do it.
I have written well over 200 blog postings about teaching during the last 6-7 years. One particular entry from early in 2010 has really been on my mind recently—probably because a new school year is starting and I’m thinking deeply about teaching my 56 students. In that original blog, I talked about teaching Fido to roll over. Earlier today, I went back and reread this old post. I loved the idea but I did not seem to develop my thoughts particularly well. I am not sure I knew what I wanted to say. Heck, I was only 62 at the time. Maybe I have matured a bit since then (well, maybe). I decided to try again based on my current ideas about teaching. This is not a rewriting of that earlier blog entry. It is a reconsideration of the idea based on how I feel about teaching today (as I get ready to begin my 46th year in the classroom).
Sometimes, as we discuss the challenges of teaching, I think we make the whole process too complicated. Yes, it is quite difficult to teach but I am not sure we don’t get ourselves all twisted up in our own complications. Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, is famous for making the most success out of the obvious: “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.”
So, as I wrote this blog today, I wanted to get back to the same type of basic teaching steps. At its foundation, what is teaching? Interesting question to ponder.
A few years ago, I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The novel was well written and very popular at the time. Believe it or not, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a retelling of Hamlet set on a small farm in northern Wisconsin where a family breeds and trains dogs.
And, they are truly great at that job. People come from hundreds of miles to buy the dogs they have trained. Wroblewski must have known a lot about such training because he spends many pages describing in detail how the members of this family teach their dogs to perform so well. Frequently, as I read, I felt as if I were studying an education manual. Absolutely everything he writes about training dogs was so clear and logical that I started applying it to the teaching of people. And it all worked. What truly impressed me was that most of the process was nothing but common sense. There were no complicated theories of learning. Everything was about teaching the dogs. I learned so much about teaching people by just reading about how this family taught their dogs.
Often as we talk about improving education, we dwell on the characteristics of a good teacher (energetic, caring, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, etc.). However, as I read Edgar Sawtelle, no mention was made of the teacher. It was all about the process of teaching. That is a seemingly slight change of focus but an essential one.
I believe (especially in these days of wonderful technological innovations) that we sometimes hold great teaching out as some type of dark mystery. Perhaps we should start our thinking of great education with teaching and not with the teacher. There are a lot of things about teaching that are both essential and basic to successful learning.
So, I want you to try an experiment. Before you read further, answer the question I laid out at the start of this essay. Assume you have been hired by a rich person to train his dog (Fido) to roll over. The dog is bright and alert but has never been trained. The owner offers you $1,000 (might as well have a good financial reward) if you can train Fido to roll over.
How would you go about teaching a dog to roll over? Take a few minutes and write down the steps that you would likely follow. I doubt there is any technology that can be much help. There is not an app for this. You have to depend on your teaching skills at their most basic level.
I would bet that every person reading this blog can come up with several essentials steps needed to teach Fido. Here’s my list. Your list might be different but I would be surprised if the basics are not fairly close to the same.
1 – Have a firm understanding of what you want the dog to accomplish. You are the teacher. There is absolutely no reason to even start a lesson until you truly understand what you are guiding Fido to do. If your goal is vague to you, Fido has no chance of making it more concrete. In my mind, no other step is more important. Education is a random, ineffective act until you know exactly what you want to accomplish.
2 – Get Fido’s undivided attention. If Fido is watching the local squirrels or the neighbor’s cat, you have no chance to teach Fido anything. You have to place Fido in a situation where distractions are reduced to zero if possible. Fido has to be focused on the lesson.
3 – All communications have to be clear. The teacher has to communicate to Fido what needs to be done. Fido cannot read your mind. If the communication is not clear, the poor dog cannot even raise his paw and ask for a repeat. Demonstrate to Fido exactly what he is supposed to do. Very few things in teaching are more important than communications. Get that right and the learning is much easier. Get that wrong and you are probably out of luck.
4 – Consistent treatment. If you are harsh one moment and laughing the next, Fido will have no idea how to react. Fido will be an emotional wreck. The dog does not have the experience needed to grasp the meaning of changes in treatment. Decide who you are as a teacher and how you are going to treat Fido and then stick with the process unless it simply is not going to work. Too many teachers are Dr. Jekyll for a while and then morph into Mr. Hyde. Fido will work best when he is comfortable with you and the process.
5 – Build sequentially; build incrementally. As I said in my previous blog posting, most learning occurs sequentially. Learning takes place in small jumps of understanding. You already know how to roll over. It is no challenge for you. You have to avoid jumping right to the big finish. Fido only has the ability to make small jumps of understanding. Set up the learning steps as sequentially as possible and keep them close enough together so that Fido can be successful in moving from one to the next.
6 – Acknowledge proper responses. I am a big believer that the world would function better if all the people in charge would give more pats on the back. They are easy and free and everyone wants positive reinforcement. Fido wants to be a good dog and is thrilled with a kind word (and a dog biscuit). I think positive reinforcement is one of the things we all fail to do in so many aspects of life.
7 – Correct incorrect action immediately. If Fido acts incorrectly and you don’t say anything about it being wrong, Fido thinks he has done it right and will continue to do it that way forever (and will believe that you are thrilled that he is doing so well). No one likes to fuss but if Fido does it wrong, you have to stop the incorrect action right then or you just make it worse. Fido will always interpret silence as “that’s exactly what I want.”
8 – Repetition Repetition Repetition. It is easy for you. It is not easy for Fido. No matter how many times you think you have to demonstrate what you are trying to get across, it will probably take twice as many times. I know that drives some teachers crazy but repetition is necessary if you really want Fido to learn. Almost no one ever hears or sees something once and has it down perfectly.
9 – Time and Patience. Learning is not a race (although our education system seems to favor speed). My younger daughter has CP and some mild memory problems. But she will be a senior in college next year. She has taught me so much about having patience—not everyone learns at the same speed. It is the learning that is important, not the speed. If you want successful learning, give Fido the time he needs and stop looking at the clock.
Okay, go back to each of these nine and merely change the words “Fido” and “dog” to “students” and I believe it will read just as well. This is not about the teacher. This is about teaching. (1) Understand your goal, (2) Make sure you have the students undivided attention, (3) Communications with the students should be frequent and clear, (4) Be consistent in the way you approach the class and the students, (5) Build the lessons sequentially and incrementally, (6) Use positive reinforcement, (7) Correct incorrect actions immediately, (8) Expect some amount of repetition to be necessary, (9) – Be patient and do not ruin the learning by being in a big hurry.
Could you follow those nine teaching steps and train Fido to roll over? Well, nothing is guaranteed but I think Fido would probably learn fairly well. If you follow these nine steps could you be successful teaching accounting or English or biology or political science or whatever. I think that is the essence of this post. No matter what you are teaching, it is hard to get away from the importance of the basic steps. There are lots of ways to be a great teacher. We have all seen successful teachers who have radically different styles ranging from mean to kind. But I believe, at the very basics, teaching has a set foundation.
As you get ready to begin a new school year, think about each of these nine carefully and ask yourself how you could improve your efforts in each one during 2016-2017. That is not a bad way to start off a bright new academic year.