This isn’t a recurring nightmare but it is a recurring thought. After fouteen years of teaching I really don’t have a clue how to do it.
I go to work and my classes are organized and on task and I have a pretty good reputation as a teacher. I actually think I am pretty effective, or at least above average. But when it comes to figuring out how to do it, I really don’t know. I think about this because effective teaching is in the news. It is the news; America is in all stages of a decline and crisis because of a lack of effective teaching. So if I fancy myself as an effective teacher than it only seems fair that I should be able to explain how to do it. But I can’t.
I am in good company. There is an interview with Richard Feynman a Nobel prize winning physicist who was also a professor at Cal Tech. Besides being a brilliant physicist his reputation as a teacher was beyond reproach You can still go on Amazon and buy books that are simply transcripts of his lectures on physics even though the lectures are over forty years old.
But in the interview he admits that after many years of teaching he still doesn’t know how to do it. He relates teaching his young son science through a fantastic make believe world he invents as bedtime stories. He tells how interested and excited his son was, and how much he learned. But then he had a daughter. She wanted nothing to do with it, she wanted traditonal bedtime stories. Feynman thought it was because they had different personalites.
In his formal teaching he tries a skattergun approach, send a lot of stuff out there and see what sticks. But he doesn’t know why some stuff sticks for some people and why others are bored by the topics some find fascinating. He asks the question just how do you get people interested, which in edu-talk is how do we get them intrinsically motivated. And I wonder that too.
I have two physical science classes this year. One is large, 32 students and the other is about half that size. The large class gets more of their work in, stays on task better and has consistently better grades.
Interestingly the small class defies the conventional wisdom of the positive effects of small class size. Fewer of them consistently get their work in, stay on task and as result the class average is about a full letter grade lower.
This could have something to do with unintentional “tracking.” In our small school, especially in their freshmen year, the band is a big driver of the schedule. And as might be expected “Band Kids” typically are somewhat better students. So that might explain part of the discrepency. And for whatever reason there are more at-risk kids and attendance problems in the small class so that could also explain the difference.
But there is more interesting difference than grades. In the smaller class the students consistently raise very interesting questions and we have wide ranging discussions about science. They really think about it and make the connectins to their real world. They say things like, “Oh so that’s why such and such happens....”
While in the other class I have to pull teeth to get a discussion going and it is rare to have a kid ask a question that shows some deeper understanding. Frankly, it is a more boring class to teach.
So in the end while I give both classes the same assignments, projects and tests, I think at the end of the day the “poor” students learn more science. For some reason these kids get more interested and as a result learn more. But how does a teacher make that happen? How can we train teachers to make that happen, to make teachers more effective, to cure our country's ills? I wish I knew.
Here is the actual Feynman interview. It is very interesting, especially if you like Feynman.