Saturday, August 28, 2010

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish?

When is the last time you took a pencil and paper and wrote down (in a sentence or two) what you wanted to accomplish in your classes? Here, at the start of a new academic year, it might be a profitable way to spend 5 minutes. I always tell my students “if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there.”

Probably, any time in the first 30-35 years that I taught, I would have written down something like “I want to help my students come to understand and appreciate financial accounting so they can use it in the real world to help make good decisions.” That is a worthwhile goal and every word is still true for me today. However, in recent years, I have become more and more convinced that I want to do more than teach students a bunch of stuff. Somehow I feel that there is another plateau to this teaching gig that I am not yet achieving. Could I be doing more?

So, as the 2010-2011 academic year begins, I have added a few additional words to my goal: “I want to help my students become smarter people.” Is that even possible? Colleges are all about creating better educated people. Can they also increase the smartness level of their students? I personally think it can be done but it takes a lot more time and energy.

How do you increase smartness? Whenever I consider such questions, I always go back to my favorite quote about learning—one that I reflect on virtually every day. In his wonderful book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain talks with one highly successful professor about his teaching style. “’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.”

You puzzle the students; you tie them into knots. And, then you begin to help them untie those knots. What a glorious description of what education can be—learning that I think not only educates but can actually makes the student a smarter person.

Yesterday in class, we discussed two small accounting rules. My students could have easily “learned” these two rules in 5 minutes or less. Instead, we took the rules apart, piece by piece, looking for connections and contradictions trying to figure out their purpose and how they were supposed to achieve that purpose. After 50 minutes of questions and debates, I asked the students another question, one that seemed unrelated. The students were able to take the understanding they had developed and figure out how to use it to resolve this final question. That was my ultimate goal. They were able to figure out something new on their own.

Were they actually smarter people? Well, after just 50 minutes, they probably weren’t really any smarter. But, if we are able to create those puzzles and knots for an entire semester and work to figure out how to untie them, then, yes, I do hope they will become both educated and smarter by December.

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