Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Nonaggression Pact in Reverse

I guess most college professors have heard about the college teaching version of the nonaggression pact. The teacher sends subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages to the students: “I’m a very busy person. I won’t challenge you to do much if you’ll leave me alone. I won’t expect much of you so you shouldn’t expect much of me.” Obviously, this attitude leads to grade inflation and a mediocre (at best) educational experience.

It would be interesting to give college teachers truth serum and ask them what they think of this approach. My guess is that a lot of people are appalled by it but I would bet that a significant number would shrug and suggest “that’s just what college education is like.” The nonaggression pact has been around for a long time now. In 2010, I sometimes think we see so little truly exceptional education that we don’t even know that it exists. It is hard to strive for beauty if you have never experienced it. Acceptance of the nonaggression pact reduces the chance of experiencing education at some wonderfully high level.

At your university, what percentage of the classes are much better than mediocre? What percentage would you judge as a wonderful experience?

How can we change this trend? What is the reverse of the nonaggression pact? I would suspect that it would sound something like this: “I’m a very busy person. However, your education is important and I am going to challenge every person in this class to succeed. All of you. That means you can expect me to be very well prepared for every class and you have the right to come by my office and get help if you need it; I will help you to succeed.”

The question is not about the first three sentences. The question is about the last sentence. But, it is the important one. Teachers often challenge students. That’s easy to do. That challenge is a hollow one, and the students recognize that, if the teacher is not willing to back it up with some effort.

I often say “you cannot challenge a student to leap tall buildings in a single bound if you are not willing to do the boring stuff involved with helping them to learn to fly.”

If you have read this blog for long, you know I often tell my students that a class is like a dance: they do half of the work and I do half of the work and together we can create something that is wonderful. But, both sides have to do their half. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

Here’s my suggestion. Push up your 50 percent to a higher level. Be better prepared. Think more about your classes and your teaching. Encourage your students to come by and see you more often for assistance. Spend a bit longer grader tests and writing notes on their papers.

Student change won’t come immediately but I believe that you will find that, over time, they will begin to push up their 50 percent also. In a dance, someone has to lead. In a class, someone has to lead and it ought to be the teacher. If one dancer starts working harder, the other person often responds accordingly. Don’t ask the students to increase their 50 percent first. That won’t work—you are the leader. Push up your 50 percent and see if you are not impressed by the response you get.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Are Your Class Goals Nouns or Verbs?

A good friend of mine asked me recently what my goal was in teaching one of my courses (financial accounting). I think he expected me to list out certain topics and concepts that I wanted all my students to learn. I call these “noun goals” because they describe rules, computations, or the like that students should come to know. For example, I might want my students to be able to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system.

In truth, I don’t think I have a single “noun goal” because I am not certain what any of my students are going to need to know after they leave my class. I am not sure if some or even any of my students will ever need to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system. How can a topic be a course goal if most of the students may never need the knowledge?

I explained to my friend that I had a single goal for my classes and I call it a “verb goal” because it involves action. I will be perfectly happy if I can get all of my students (100 percent – not just the ones who need to know perpetual LIFO) to spend 5 hours per week outside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting and 3 hours per week inside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting. I believe that is reasonable and if I can get that kind of effort then my students will come to better understand and appreciate financial accounting –qualities that can have a very positive effect on them in their years after leaving my class.

For this reason, I’m not so obsessed with getting every bit of information covered. If my students don’t happen to cover every possible depreciation method, I don’t lose sleep. If my students don’t learn every characteristic of common stock, their lives are not ruined. If I can get them, though, to think seriously about financial accounting for 8 hours per week for 14 weeks, I think they will take away a huge amount of understanding and interest. I think that is how you get a student to say “wow – I never knew financial accounting could be so interesting.” And, that is what I want – it comes from having a verb goal and not from a noun goal.

How do you get students to think seriously about a topic? Isn’t that really the ultimate question for a teacher? Forget everything else. If I can get my students to think seriously about financial accounting, haven’t I won the battle? At that point, the class starts to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If you have read this blog before, you know that I rely almost exclusively on two teaching techniques. First, I ask a countless number of “why?” “how come?” “are you sure?” type questions. I believe questions are the driver for critical thinking skills. Second, I work constantly to puzzle my students. If I can present them with a puzzle, I find they are dying to figure out how to solve that puzzle.

Think of your classes for the fall of 2010. Are your goals nouns or verbs?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

June 6, 2011

When I lead teaching seminars, I often start out with a quote and a challenge that I hope tie together well enough to give the audience members something to ponder.

The quote is: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it." Your teaching, I believe, will not get better simply by ongoing repetition. Too often, bad teachers stay bad teachers year after year until they retire (often with an established list of rationalizations). Teaching gets better when people sit down and think seriously about what is going on in their classes, why it is happening in that way, whether they like the result, and—if not—what can be done differently. I am always reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you do something in class that does not work as you hoped, don’t just do it again and expect better results.

The challenge is: “Work to become 5 percent better as a teacher over the next year.” I consider that a reasonable and worthwhile goal. No one is going to become 50 percent, or even 20 percent, better as a teacher in one year. But, 5 percent is a goal that I think everyone can achieve. And, if you meet that goal for a few years straight, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you become one of the best teachers at your school. Evolution does happen.

Many of us do not teach during the summer making this the ideal time to think about teaching. A brand new school year is coming up in the fall. What do you need to work on? What elements of your teaching need to be evaluated and retooled? How are you going to make 5 percent improvement? Surely, there is some aspect of your teaching where you can get better.

One of the things that I like to do is break teaching down into its various components and then consider them individually. Many times, I will work on one single component of the learning process rather than try for across the board improvement. What are some of these components?

--How often do you want students to be prepared for class and how do you get them to do the preparation that you want? Does this preparation stress critical thinking? There is a big difference between: “why does a lessee want an operating lease?” and “write down the four criteria for a capital lease?”

--How do you get all of your students to participate in class and not just the most extroverted ones?

--How do you introduce a new topic into class without just telling the students about it (lecturing)?

--How do you move from a mechanical/memorization based class to one where students truly are pushed to understand?

--After material has been covered in class, how do you encourage students to continue spending time on it until they understand it fully? Class coverage is rarely enough to establish complete knowledge.

--How do you encourage students to learn on an ongoing basis and not just to prepare for tests?

--How do you test in a way that encourages students to learn and not just memorize?

--How do you grade so that students are challenged without being overwhelmed, encouraged without everyone getting an A?

--I led a discussion this past Friday where I stressed I I E E – involve, interest, engage, excite. How do you add those verbs to you class?

There are lots of components to this learning process that we deal with each day in our work lives. Today is June 6, 2010. Think about the components of your teaching and pick one or two to focus on over the next 12 months with the goal of using that thinking to help make yourself 5 percent better as a teacher. Come back on June 6, 2011 and hold yourself accountable. What did you actually do? What did you try? Did you get better at those components of teaching and did they make your overall teaching 5 percent better?