Teaching is hard. It's so hard we sometimes tend to forget about the simplest things. But they are often the most effective...
Doing something over and over again and getting better and better at it sometimes hides the big picture from us. We start digging deeper and deeper into the specifics and while we learn about all kinds of new fascinating tools, tricks and approaches, we sometimes start overlooking the basics.
This is certainly the case with me and I always need to remind myself to keep it simple at least from time to time.
A Problem With Modern Education
There has been a lot of ink spilled on how imperfect the current school system is and how it needs to be changed radically. But if we have to be honest, teachers also have a lot of tools at their disposal to make huge difference for their students as is, but we often forget to use them.
Personally, one of the main problems I see with the way teaching is currently organized is the fact that students are treated like storage units. In a lot of the classes taking place today, teachers simply unload a ton of information on them with the hope that it will stick. They want to load up the storage unit that is the student's mind and they want to be able to retrieve this ready-made knowledge on demand. Tests, exams and questions during class are often aimed at checking that the content required is still there in the exact shape and form that it was delivered in.
But this is not how the human mind works and hearing, remembering and repeating is not the best method to make sure a person learns something. A person learns something by processing it and we need to encourage our students to be processing and internalizing what they are supposed to be learning. Very often we as teachers who care about our students try to make our classes more successful without addressing this issue directly. We find new and creative ways to present information, but we forget about a very simple tool that can spark curiosity and promote learning and understanding in a very different way...
The Power of a Difficult Question
And I'm not talking about questions that try to just probe the storage for the binder that the teacher tried to stuff there yesterday. I'm talking about questions that show the student that there is something to be understood there.
Every class has the goal of teaching something, but if we just present the new information, it's hard for the students to view it as significant even if we present it in a memorable way. The human mind needs to be engaged for real learning to occur and it's much more engaged when it's searching for an answer rather than when it is just given the answer ready-made without even having been asked the question.
This is why I think that we as teachers and educators need to always remember to try and plant that seed of curiosity. One way to do it is to make your students really experience the feeling of having an unanswered question and wanting to learn the answer. We should not only ask the class the question, but make sure the students ask themselves and really wonder about it.
While I was still teaching, I used to forget this quite often and was instead worrying about curricula, exams, schedules and grades. But when I remembered to include the right questions to ask in the beginning of every class, everything seemed to go much more smoothly and the students seemed to be learning more while having more fun and staying interested for longer.
I always tried to ask related questions that I knew the students would initially struggle with. I even added misleading details to give them the chance to think about it the wrong way first. Getting it wrong at first is part of the fun! The more difficult the question, the more they were engaging with it and the more they were struggling, the bigger of an aha moment they got when we untangled that mess together.
Regardless of what we are teaching, having the students try to figure it out on their own first opens their minds up for understanding. It makes them care about the information that will be presented afterwards and allows them to really internalize the answers.
A Simple Example From Physics
When I was teaching physics, I would open class with a question from the topic of the day that I expected them to get wrong. Like giving them a piece of wood and a piece of metal that have been in the room for hours and asking them to pass them around and tell me which is colder. Then we would vote and I would record their votes on the board. Then I'd start asking question like why do you think the metal is colder if both of them have been here in the same room temperature air. I would ask them what is the process that takes away heat from the metal to make it colder than the wood or where does the heat that stays in the wood come from. They would hypothesize for awhile, but I would wait for them to discover the contradictions on their own first only helping with leading or even misleading questions.
And only after they had been scratching their heads for a while, I'd tell them that most of them had gotten it wrong and ask them to think about it again. Then I would finally explain that both the wood and the metal are more or less the same temperature and that they feel different because of their different thermal conductivity and that both the wood and the metal are colder than our bodies, but the metal feels colder because it has higher thermal conductivity which allows it to lead more heat away from our fingers and hands.
Now, if I hadn't asked them all the questions and if they hadn't made some wrong assumptions, presenting this physics concept would have been dry and boring. But since their curiosity had already been sparked by not being able to get the right answer right away, they were ready to dive into the concept and had the motivation to understand, internalize and remember it.
I am sure that every discipline allows for such discussion about real things that can spark the interest of the students so their minds are ready and open to learning the piece of knowledge meant for today. That's why I want to remind all my fellow teachers to remember this really powerful teaching tool - the good old question. And don't forget to pick a difficult and frustrating one because those are the ones that come with fascinating answers later!
Of course, all of this goes to parents, too as this approach is always applicable.
So tell me...
How often do you open classes with discussion like that? Do you include hard questions in your lesson plans? Will you try to do that more often now that you have been reminded of this simple but powerful tool?