Thursday, February 4, 2010

You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

Beside of my computer, I keep a magazine article from the October 30, 2006, edition of Fortune. The article is titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” I have one small part of that article circled and I read it frequently: “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades.”

I want very much to be in that second group and not in the first. I want to be the type of teacher who never stops developing. I know plenty of teachers who continue to teach exactly as they did 5, 10, 15 years ago. I have taught now for 39 years, I want to keep improving. My guess is that you would not be reading this blog if you didn’t share my goal of getting better.

One of the neatest things I learned about teaching happened a mere 3 years ago. Did not occur to me for 36 years and then, suddenly, I came up with an idea that has helped my students.

Every day I give my students assignments for the next class. I try to make those assignments reasonable but I also want the questions to stretch the thinking of my students. Why ask them who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? What good does that do them?

Moreover, I want them to walk into class with those questions on their minds. I want some real thinking done before class. I want the students to be ready to discuss the points immediately.

So, about three years ago, I started urging all of my students (who could) to meet outside of the classroom about 15-30 minutes before class to discuss the questions for the day. Now, about 20 minutes before every class, there is a small roar as about 2/3 of my students sit clustered together trying to come up with the answers for the questions we are going to discuss.

There are so many things I like about this and, other than suggesting and encouraging them to do it, I don’t do anything. Here are just four things I like especially:

1-The students actually enjoy sitting there chatting with each other about their accounting assignments. Who could not like an idea that helps the students find the material more enjoyable?
2-The students walk into class with all of the material fresh on their mind; I don’t have to take 10 minutes to remind them of what we are doing.
3-The students form a community; they learn from each other and they learn to help each other. I think that is something all classes should strive to create. They actually become a team.
4-The students don’t want to feel stupid in front of their peers so they actually seem to prepare more before these sessions.

Okay, but the questions do have to challenge them to think or there is no benefit from the meeting. That is the real key.

For example, on Monday, I want to spend a little time talking about the role and purpose of the SEC. I don’t want to spend much time but I do think (especially in these current economic times) that every person who has had an accounting class should understand something about the SEC. But that can be a deadly dull topic in an accounting class. So, here is the question that I will pose for them to consider. After they sit and talk about this question before class, I doubt there will be much left for me to do. I think they will hash it out for themselves and I’ll just make sure they get all the points that I want them to have.

(Question 10) – Read Section One of Chapter Six of our Financial Accounting textbook. Assume you have a roommate who has never been inside of the business school. The roommate looks at you one day and says “I keep hearing all about the Securities and Exchange Commission on the news. What the heck does the SEC do and why is always in the news and why should I even care?” What would be your response?

And, I came up with this idea after I was officially an old dog.

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