Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Thoughts About Teaching.

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.


  1. I like this post a lot, it reminds me of the way I felt throughout most of my public education. From the opposite side of the spectrum, as a student in this time period you have to ask yourself similar questions. What's in the making of a good education, clearly if I want to get a good job I need to learn a lot. But there's a plethora of things I'm required to learn in school that will not have any relation to what I'll do later in life. On top of all this, you have to assess the true accuracy of the education system we default to, can grades really define your knowledge of a subject. I had a moderate amount of success in high school, asking the questions I wanted to ask so I personally understood what I wanted to understand, and passing tests with high grades based on this personal understanding and a bit of knowing how most test questions are written. I think your example of the two classes suggests that in order to like something, or be interested in it, you don't necessarily have to comply with the typical educational dogma. They may not even defy conventional logic, the larger class is full of kids who value "doing well" in school more than "learning" It's an perfect situation to show that grades don't always work the way they're supposed to. But when you look at the big picture of how peoples lives will change during and after high school, how can you expect it to work all the time? There will be people who will come to class and take the information you give them, retain it completely, but shrug at the idea of homework. They'd be content to talk about any subject you've learned so far, but they don't think they should have to write it down. Visualizing the material, and wanting to 'do well' are entirely different things. It's definitely fair to say that society pressures us to excel in school, it's hard coded into us at a young age, that the key for success is your education, but if you personally find a way to grasp what you're expected to, why should you be expected to keep working it over and over until it's universally understood.
    The first red flag that comes up is the idea of an unfair advantage, well what if someone has a scientific aptitude, then they shouldn't have to jump through the same hoops as everyone else? It certainly sounds unfair, but at the same time the public education system is trying to blanket teach kids of varying aptitudes and varying capabilities in the same room over the same time-span, that sounds pretty unfair to me too.

    As far knowing how to teach, you were and I imagine always will be an amazing teacher, not because your students have good averages, or you have a system down. But because the way you teach is by explaining things as you understand them, in a down to earth way. Your no nonsense mentality keeps the regular distractions at bay, but truly it's the way you communicate information that makes you a great teacher, I think it's what every good teacher does whether they realize it or not, having high quality communication skills, and a desire to truly understand the material yourself.

    As far as curing the world and feeling like you don't always know what you're trying to do, I think the thing to remember is that the odds are severely stacked against you, it's realistically impossible to be able to give a perfect 100% A+ education to every single student you have, because every single person thinks in different terms, and has different problems that may impede their education. The fact that your doing this well against those odds just attests to the quality of your character. It takes a certain kind of person to be a teacher, and I think your that kind of person, that's how you do it.

  2. You have some interesting ideas here about the potential effects of class size.

  3. Kevin, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I do remember vaguely my public school career as a student and I am sure I would have fit in the smaller class student category. I did not get particularly good grades, but if the content interested me I was engaged. I also spent a of time daydreaming and staring off into space, activities that don't get a lot of credibility when it comes to learning but maybe they should.
    Maren, like I have said from my own experience some of my lowest achieving students have been in my smallest classes. I guess one shouldn't confuse cause and effect. Todd