During a semester, teachers do not always have enough free time available to make radical class improvements. Consequently, as I have said often in these blog postings over the years, the summer is a fabulous time to work on the upcoming learning process. Frequently, this advice has focused on the students. How can you get them especially well motivated for an outstanding class in the fall? Today, however, I want to address you as the teacher. I want to make a suggestion for a simple experiment that I hope you will try between now and the first week of class.
Creating a great educational experience is impossible unless you have a clear idea as to what success should look like. What do you really want to happen? “By the last day of the fall semester, I want to have a great class but I really do not know what that will look like,” is a ludicrous statement. However, many teachers really do not know what that great class would look like. They have just never considered it.
I believe college teachers should merge their class goals and their basic teaching philosophy to form a mental model of the type of learning environment they hope to create over the course of a semester. I refer to this as “my desired reality,” what I want to see happen on the final day of class next fall. In sports, athletes often talk about the importance of mentally visualizing an upcoming competition. Prior to a tennis match or football game, the athlete will sit quietly and envision exactly what he or she hopes to have occur. The athlete makes this mental picture as vivid as possible by “walking” sequentially through each desired step of the coming contest. The athlete wants to have a sense of how the actions will feel when everything goes just perfectly as planned. In your class, what does designed perfection look like? Decades ago, a popular book titled Psycho-Cybernetics (by Maxwell Maltz) described the potential benefits of this type of visualization.
For me, creating an organized structure for my class is difficult without a clear picture of my desired reality. How do I envision that last day of class each semester? Everyone has their own dream ending but here is mine.
I see myself walking into the classroom on the last day of the semester. The students are in their seats, attentive and ready to go to work. I select a student at random and ask that person to address a particular question about the topic assigned for that day. There is no hesitation. The student gives a reasonable, thought-out response to my query. The student has obviously read the assignment and, moreover, has given the issues being raised serious consideration. The answer is not superficial. The student has thought about the topic. The student is not afraid to be incorrect. The student is not worried about being the subject of laughter or ridicule. In that room, a feeling of mutual respect exists between the teacher and the students as a group as well as among the individual students. This is a team effort. I ask a second student to comment on the answer presented by the first student. The second student has listened carefully to the previous response and begins to discuss, question, and elaborate on specific points that were covered. The student compliments the first student for answers that were well conceived but is also willing to criticize the validity of specific points as long as the first student is not personally degraded. A third student raises a hand to defend an assertion made by the first student. A fourth student raises a hand to pose a question in hopes of clarifying an answer that was offered. A fifth student raises a hand to compare the current issue to ones we have discussed earlier in the semester. And, so it goes. Every student in the room is engaged in the conversation and the exploration of the topic. No one asks "will this be on the test?" Understanding is the goal and not memorization.
In my desired reality, the classroom experience is a guided conversation in which we, as a group, explore a particular topic. The students are asked to prepare in advance and they do so. They are asked to think and they do so. They are asked to listen and they do so. They are asked to respond and question and they do so. They are asked to get involved and they do so.
The teacher is asked to guide, prod, and encourage and does so. Both groups are expected to enjoy the give and take process that leads to thinking and learning. The daily class experience is an intriguing exploration and not dreary torture. Speaking strictly for me, this is an educational experience worth having (if it can be created).
Of course, this is just what I want. What you want for your classes can be entirely different and even more valid. The decision is up to you. However, no one reaches the goal if it has not been envisioned in advance.
Can any desired reality come true? Two things are absolutely necessary. First, I have to know what I want to accomplish. Any teacher who does not have a firm grip on what that last class session is supposed to look like will never get there. Second, from the time I start communicating with my students, everything I do has to help achieve this reality. Students will never conform to the reality you seek without clear guidance. This vision is just a daydream if you are not willing to “guide, prod, and encourage” your students in that direction.
It all starts with a clear understanding of your desired reality.
So, here is your (obvious) assignment. Take some time and think deeply about the last day of your fall classes. What reality would you like to see on that day? When you walk into the last class in November or December, what would be the best outcome that you could possibly want? Take some time and write it down. That helps to make the goals more concrete.
If you can dream it, you can create it.
Once you know the reality you seek, start asking yourself how can you start moving your students to that point by the end of the fall. Make good use of your summer.