Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Opening

In my previous post, I indicated that I believed teachers should do a lot less than 100 percent of the talking in class—especially on the opening day. Several people wrote to ask me how I do that.

I view every class as a conversation. So, how do you start a conversation? Most conversations begin with a question. “Do you come here often?” “Have you ever had better barbecue?” “What did you think about that baseball game last night?” “Do you remember the weather ever being this hot?” Questions are a natural conversation starter. You then reply based on the answer you get. A good question can lead to hours of non-scripted conversation. The same is true in class.

Therefore, I really think about my opening question. Where do I hope it will lead our conversation? I think it often sets the tone for the entire day. In fact, on the first day, you may well be setting the tone for the entire semester.

Okay, I teach accounting classes so my opening question probably cannot be about William Shakespeare or e. e. cummings. I have to start convincing some very skeptical students that my accounting class is going to be both beneficial to them and interesting. English majors, biology majors and the like are not always sure that this accounting stuff is worth their time.

In each of my three opening classes yesterday, I walked in, read out the roll, and then called on a student randomly and asked the following question. “I was listening to National Public Radio on Friday and heard a bit of news announced at 6:40 p.m. Day in and day out, more people probably pay attention to this piece of news than any other single news item in the entire world. The announcer said ‘Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 57.59 points.’"

My guess is that most people in the business community around the world had a pretty good understanding of what that meant. What is the Dow Jones Industrial Average? What fell? Why did it fall? Why should anyone care? And, what did accounting have to do with this?” I actually asked these questions one at a time as the conversation flowed back and forth.

The students were immediately intrigued. To them, it is like there is secret information out there in the real world that everyone seems to know and understand but they don’t. This is not about being able to pass a test. This is about avoiding looking embarrassingly dumb when you enter the real world.

We proceeded to have a wonderful conversation as the students worked out what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is and what its drop on Friday signified and how accounting information helps investors know which company stocks to buy and which to sell. The students were interested to learn that Alcoa’s stock with up .02 on Friday while DuPont went down .25 – what accounting information might have led to that shift?

At the end of the day, the students seemed to feel that this accounting stuff was actually pretty interesting and might be worth spending some time to learn. And, I had only done about 50 percent of the talking which is always my goal.

Okay -- here might be the important part of this post:
In the minds of many students, there is school and there is the real world and it is that divide that makes school seem unimportant. With my very first question on the very first day of the semester, I wanted the students to see that we were going to be studying something that really could be important to their lives beyond school. And, if you cannot establish that, right from the beginning, is there any reason to have the class?

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