Several weeks ago I was honored to lead a 2-hour teaching program for the Tennessee Society of Accounting Educators in Nashville. I had spoken to the group a few years back and they were kind enough to invite me to return. I tried my best not to repudiate everything I had said in my previous visit. When you talk and write a lot, you worry that you’ll start contradicting yourself.
Whenever I give any teaching presentation, I like to include a thought or suggestion that I discover during the preceding few days. For me, adding a new idea at the very last moment has become almost a superstition. I enjoy doing this because it forces me to keep my eyes open for words or actions that are interesting and inspirational—something that will make me a better teacher, something that I can share with the group. I am aware that it is easy for me to see obvious pieces of wisdom and still miss their significance. (When the Wright Brothers were first learning to fly their new airplane in an open field near Dayton, they were pretty much ignored by the local newspapers because no one could grasp that their results might have some importance. It is easy, I think, for all of us to have that kind of blurred vision.)
Before I left for Nashville, I was reading Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, an interesting book that a good friend of mine (Laura Webb) had given me. Professor Webb is a wonderfully insightful teacher in our law school here at Richmond. I was sure that any book she recommended would be full of good advice.
Not surprisingly, I found my last-minute idea for the Tennessee conference almost immediately in that book. I do not know if these words had any influence on the members of my audience but they certainly touched me and have influenced my teaching this semester. When you are in your 46th year in the classroom, it is easy to believe that nothing ever needs to change. In fact, at my age you want to put the whole process on auto-pilot. (“I’ve done this for so long there is no reason to even consider doing something new. Good enough is good enough.”) But, that’s pure and total nonsense. Improvement is a daily battle that never ends. Every teacher can (and should) work to get better. Consequently, I have made a number of changes in my class this semester and the quote from Why Don’t Students Like School? has been the impetus for several of them.
Okay, what the heck did I read that caught my attention and influenced my semester?
“People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.
“The implications of this principle is that teachers should reconsider how they encourage their students to think, in order to maximize the likelihood that students will get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.”
It was the last few words that hit home for me: “students will get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.” Wow, that is such a wonderful description of how education should work and feel.
--It is NOT about memorization.
--It IS about thinking.
--It is NOT about the pain of tolerating a boring class.
--It IS about the pleasure of learning.
--It is NOT about some grade on a test.
--It IS about a personal epiphany.
--It is NOT about conveying information.
--It IS about figuring out logical solutions.
How did those few words affect my thinking and teaching? That is easy: I have been working on how I can help my students “get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.” Not 30 percent of my students or 50 percent of my students but all of them--100 percent.
There is no way that students can be successful every day. Regardless of the subject, students have to learn to work their way through complex material to arrive at true understanding. Failure is a natural part of that process. A wrong assumption is made or a step is taken without logical support. Education is just full of failure. We all know that. But, at some point, there has to be success or students become discouraged and intimidated. “I am too dumb to learn this material” is certainly not the outcome anyone wants. If things always seem to be sliding downhill, students will fall back on what I refer to as “high school habits” – note taking, cramming, and memorization. I don’t want that. That leads to neither understanding nor a pleasurable rush.
My goal is not to prove to my students that my classes are so challenging that no one can possibly learn the material. Gosh, what good would that do them or me? My goal is to help my students work their way through the swamp of complexity so that they can ultimately figure out the path for themselves. I like that goal (no, actually, I love that goal). I want 100 percent of my students to get to that point. Making a good grade on a test is great but there needs to be a better reward than that. Learning should not be solely a quest for grades. There needs to be that pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought. I have come back to those words over and over during the past few weeks. That pleasurable rush can be additive. It can turn a mediocre student into a fabulous student. It can make students want to try harder, want to think more deeply. Nothing succeeds like success. However, you have to help make sure that true success happens—at least occasionally.
If there is so much failure in the learning process, how can a teacher introduce that pleasurable rush into class? That’s a legitimate question for any teacher to consider. If you have suggestions, please let me know. I am always on a quest for more and better ideas.
Here are a few things that I have been trying this semester.
1 – Openly acknowledge when a student makes a mental leap. That’s when the critical thinking is happening. “See – you took what we discussed in our previous class and you adapted it to solve this new problem. That’s excellent. Good job.” You don’t need to make such comments every day but now and then can be a real boost for a student’s morale. And, you cannot just deliver that message to the top 10 percent of the class. Anyone can teach those people. They are already familiar with the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought. Figure out how to say something positive to every student as often as possible.
2 – When you see a student outside of class, mention something they have done well. Be as specific as possible. “Good work” just sounds like you are being a cheerleader. “Your answer on that third question today was excellent. I loved how you methodically walked your way through the facts and the assumptions to come up with a great answer. That shows what you are capable of.”
3 – If a student stumbles on a test, they immediately face a crisis of confidence. Before they lose faith in themselves, send them an email “Listen, I know you could not possibly be happy with that grade. Believe me, you are capable of doing much better work in this class. Come by and see me ASAP and let’s talk about how you can perform better in my class. There are things that you can do that will help. I think some adjustments will lead to better results on the next test.” Successful thought has to be a viable outcome or no student is ever going to work very hard.
4 – Rethink how you are discussing material in class. If you are simply presenting material so that it is copied and regurgitated, there is never going to be a pleasurable rush from that. That is education at its dullest. Over the years on this blog, I have repeated one quote several times from What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain because I think it is relevant to better teaching. “One teacher 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.”
“And then you begin to help them untie the knots.”
I never read those words that I don’t say to myself “Yep, that’s exactly why I am here teaching these students. To puzzle them and then help them untie the knots.”
Could there be a better way to introduce your students to “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.”