During my undergraduate days at UCLA, then as now, hundreds of students listened to their professors in large lecture halls. I don’t recall anyone trying to stop a professor mid-lecture to ask for clarification on a point. Professors offered “office hours” for questions, clarification or extra assistance. A recent kerfuffle at a dance session I attended caused me to reflect on my own education, and how that background, and my years in the corporate world, may have informed my own teaching and learning styles.
The brouhaha at the dance happened when the choreographer teaching our lesson told his off-task, side-conversation-having, noisy students to…”shut up.” Some students whined about his rudeness. His style, which is entirely typical of the way a folk dance is taught, consisted of a walk-through explanation of a folk dance sequence without music. The next step was, and is often, steps dictated orally with the music in the background. Finally, the dance is practiced with music, but without the talk. When particular moves in the sequences are difficult, the teachers often ask the students to repeat the move two or three times.
When the students weren’t readily digesting the particular dance move they were being served, they began to question the teacher/choreographer. He became flustered and frustrated – the ability to choreograph dances to music does not necessarily mean a person can teach also – and some felt offended by his manner. Later, one dancer stated, “dancers adhere to a social contract where a teacher is only expected to present the material to large groups as an introduction.” I agreed with this, and relate it to all classroom-type learning. In dancing, and maybe in “real-life” as well, you acquire knowledge from input, mimicry and repetition. When it comes to dancing, you may eventually master the more difficult aspects of dances by following other proficient dancers, or by viewing videos of lessons on YouTube. The commenting dancer maintained that asking questions in the middle of the lesson was like asking for a private lesson on the spot, and that it both interrupted the teacher, and impeded the progress of the accelerated students who were able to acquire the material as it was being presented.
When I have taught or trained people, my style has always been more “presentation” than “teaching” oriented, which is also the way I like to learn. My K-12 classes were taught with my brand of classroom management, which consisted of: inviting students into my classroom all at once, having them quietly sit down and take out their materials, and then requiring them to complete a five to ten minute, graded, for credit, written reflection. This segue allowed me to present my material, and I’d ask my audience (of students) to reserve questions until after I was done. I suggested that my listeners take notes, so that their questions would not be forgotten; when a person’s mind is cluttered with questions, they’re not able to listen. Furthermore, when a speaker is interrupted, they might forget their train of thought. Some of my students felt that I “wouldn’t allow them to ask questions,” but I always did leave opportunity for query, just at appropriate junctures.
I agreed with my fellow dancer’s assessment of the situation. From teaching dance routines to writing process workshops, lessons and/or presentations to large groups of people can only be meant as introductory efforts. The minute you gather together thirty random individuals to learn anything, a handful of people will already have some prior knowledge, or, with minimal instruction they’ll understand concepts quickly. Within the same group, a couple of students may never actually master the material. The majority of students will eventually “master” the skill, but at varying levels of depth and speed.
The good news is that most skills under the sun can be acquired through practice, repetition, and occasional intervention. To the extent that a teacher can communicate expectations clearly to students at the very start, they will be able to decipher quickly which concepts are or are not understood by what population of students. Teachers can then easily zero-in with topic specific groupings, such as: writing conclusions on essays, solving proofs in Geometry or memorizing the meanings of historical terms. If done properly, temporary sub-groups can be formed around remediation, someone capable of re-teaching a concept in a different manner can be found to do the job, and everyone else can move on to new and/or more in depth knowledge acquisition.
Many educator friends claim that they are being asked to teach so that students can achieve “mastery.” This sounds like a case of perfectionism, which is a hindrance – not a help – to learning. The notion that everyone should be able to learn every concept that is taught “perfectly” is subjective; what IS mastery after all? Is it 100%? 85%? Is 75% ever enough? If we instead start by introducing topics and giving diagnostic assessments (checking for prior knowledge) up front, students who immediately demonstrate mastery should be able to choose new or more in depth topics to learn about, and share their extra time and brainpower for the greater good of society.
If I cannot run a mile in ten minutes, making me run that mile over and over until I improve is punitive. It could be that there is physical problem preventing me (a little asthma), an emotional problem (lack of desire to bother with such a task), or maybe I need to learn some special trick in order to do it. This particular example demonstrates that standards are made to be questioned, just as rules are made to be broken. What authority decides who should be able to run a mile in a set amount of time, and to what end?
Imparting and acquiring knowledge becomes painful when we turn it into “rocket science.” I believe in a more organic approach to learning. I call it “figuring stuff out.”
Artwork by Alix Travis