Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Very First Question

My first class of the 2011-2012 academic year will be next Monday at 9 a.m. If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I only teach by using a Socratic Method approach. I distribute questions in advance and then discuss those or related questions for the entire class time. I want a thoughtful conversation. This allows me to stick with my 50-50 goal (I do 50 percent of the talking and they do 50 percent of the talking).

I am a big believer that it is important to get each new class off to the proper start. You set a tone at the beginning that carries through for the entire semester. If you are funny, they’ll expect you to be funny from now on. If you do 100 percent of the talking, they’ll assume that this is the way you teach every single day.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tone I am creating during that first class. By now, I have already sent my students 4-5 emails so I fully expect them to be prepared on Monday morning and ready to go. I like creating a bit of urgency right from the beginning – this is important stuff and we cannot afford to waste our time. I believe that myself so why not convey this message.

This semester I have focused a lot of my attention on the very first question that I am going to ask. What do I want my students to think about immediately starting right at 9:00 a.m.?

I may change my mind by Monday but the question I plan to ask (as I type this) is: “if our class works perfectly this semester, if you and I both do all that we can possibly do and things go great, how will you be different at the end of the semester?”

Only a very few words but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. Why do I like it?

--First and foremost, it focuses on the change that can occur in them. Students typically think about class in terms of learning. I’m not nearly as interested in learning (which can sound like the memorization of the Gettysburg Address). I want them to think about class in terms of how it will change them. In December, as a result of this class, I want them to walk out as different people. How is my class going to make that happen? I think “learning” simply understates the potential impact of a college class. I want them to be different; I want them to be better people in some definable way. And, I think they are more likely to get there if they consider what that change may be.

--Second, I want them to connect what they do with that change. Benefits don't happen by accident I want the students to realize that their “work” and their “change” are closely related. It is not just the passage of time that counts. That only makes you older. It is the work carried out during the semester that creates change in the student. I want them to realize that the more they work, the more they will change (and grow).

--Third, I definitely want my students to understand that the learning process is a team effort. It is not my job alone. Likewise, it is not just them operating by themselves. “If you AND I both do all that we can possibly do . . .” I often tell my students that class is like performing a dance such as the waltz. One party leads but both parties have to do an equal share of the work. A dance where only one person does any real work is an awkward mess. However, a dance where both people work together can lead to wonderful results. I inform students that I will do my half of the work but I will absolutely not do more than my half. It is their education and they have to be willing to do their share of the work.

--Fourth, I want the students to know that there is risk involved. I never never never take it for granted that a class will be a success. For me, “if” is always a scary word. “If this class works perfectly this semester,” sends the message that things might not work well. Benefit is not guaranteed. Students often seem to feel that if they merely persevere until the last day, they will accrue whatever benefit that is available. School = Perseverance = Success. No, some students gain immensely in my class whereas others obtain literally no benefit. I want to show students the opportunity that is available to them. But it may not happen There is a great benefit to be gained but only if we both do the work necessary.

Now, I have a question for you. And, I’d love to hear your response: When you walk into class on the first day of the semester and you are ready to get started (you’ve gone over the course outline or whatever housekeeping you have to do), what is the very first question that you ask your students. I’m definitely curious. Let me know – I might change. Send me your “first question” at

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