At the risk of boring you all with my frequent thoughts on better teaching, I wanted to give you another metaphor on good teaching, inspired by a surfing class I took. To sum it all up, surfing was great fun. But this year, I was a bit unfortunate to get teachers who were a lot worse than the ones I’d had previously. The high waves and the shallow water make for good metaphors for the basics and the advanced topcis I frequently drone on about in my philosophy of teaching well. So, there you go.
The shallows and the high waves
The teachers were over-protective of us in the shallow waters. They helped more than we would have needed help and thereby, didn’t teach us to act independently. I wanted to do so, but it was not encouraged and we weren’t given any instructions on how to catch a wave on our own. They wouldn’t even let us paddle onto the wave ourselves, but rather pushed the board for us. This might seem very nice and thoughtful. At least, that’s how I felt at first.
But then, once we got to the higher waves – waves high enough for me to find them somewhat scary and thus, distract me quite a bit – they hardly helped at all! But since they had been so overprotective with the basics, doing everything for us, I didn’t have a feeling for how to catch a wave on my own. And this doesn’t exactly get any easier when you are panicked by the high waves. The more difficult situation we got thrown into all of a sudden made it difficult to think clearly, let alone grasp a skill on my own which no one had explained to me beforehand. The deep water is not a place to learn the basics. They should have told us those in shallow water. I think this is a very good analogy for teaching since this is exactly what happens in many classes as well. And then the teachers act like you’re an idiot for not being able to figure out the difficult stuff on your own. Because “that’s just what you do and we all had to learn it the hard way”. But really, this means that the teachers are not doing their jobs and there’s no excuse for that. Don’t blame your failings as a teacher on your students! Don’t turn your lack of teaching competence into a ‘character building’ opportunity for your students. This will not make them better people. It makes you a worse person. And a teacher I would fire on the spot if I were in the position to do so.
Don’t excuse your bad teaching as being a ‘character building’ opportunity
This is very apparent in technology classes at technical universities. In the class, you get this ridiculously simple mini example which is so easy that everybody understands it rightaway. Subsequently, teachers go on to over-explain this for 10 minutes. All students, by now, are lured into a false sense of security because the example was easy. Then they set the task for the assigment and it’s 500% more difficult than the example. This, they pretend, is a learning progression. Hint from someone who actually is a qualified teacher and has experience with training with a systematic progression in sports: No, don’t be ridiculous. This is not a progression. A progression challenges you but doesn’t set tasks which are practically impossible to achieve with the basics training provided beforehand. A progressions means setting a challenging, but doable task – not a sink or swim experience. In these programming classes, usually only those survive who had more knowledge beforehand, came from schools where they’d had years of programming practice, or else, they had more advanced friends or relatives who agreed to help them.
This creates the illusion for teachers that the class is actually doable if you’re willing to put in the work. This is a joke. If you pretend to be a teacher whatsoever, your class should be understandable without help from relatives who are experienced programmers! In some of the classes, I even read all the suggested introductory books and 2-3 more but the class was still difficult because you had to look up hundreds of programming libraries and so on. I managed because I worked hard and had some emergency help from more experienced friends. Having to look up stuff is normal in programming, of course. But as a seasoned programmer, you already know what to search for and know where the new information fits into your previous knowledge. A newbie can’t – I repeat – can’t know that. Don’t blame them for your lack of understanding of how learning works!
Maybe it’s a mistake so many people teach at universities who have never gone through teacher’s training. That is not to say that teacher’s training only produces great teachers. We all know that, sadly, it doesn’t. But at least people necessarily have heard about how learning is supposed to work in theory. Having teachers who do not know nor care how learning and teaching is supposed to work should not be allowed. Yet this is the norm at universities. Students are lucky to come across a natural every once in a while. But it is no coincidence self-help gurus stress the importance of mentors: Not to say that you couldn’t learn it on your own. But your results are just going to be a million times better and faster if you happen to come across a good teacher.
Clear instructions for the ‘danger zones’
Danger zones provide excellent opportunities for accelerated learning progress. But especially before being thrown into ‘dangerous situations’ the students are barely qualified to handle at their stage, giving out clear instructions is crucial. With the guidance of a good teacher and very, very clear instructions of what they should or shouldn’t do, treating students to a difficult challenge will greatly speed up the learning process. If not done well, however, it will be a nightmarish experience which might even end up deterring students from going on with their studies!
Having something like a life line or a safeboat might be enough to circumvent this. Or having more time or trainers to guide students as much as needed. Don’t rush into these situations without carefully planning them. Students need thoughtful teachers who are there to help students when they need it. Maybe even teachers who anticipate pitfalls students are running into because they can’t know themselves due to lack of experience. If you don’t have a lot of means to make this experience as good as possible, use the one most important element: very clear instructions and some abundant background information before you start. It is also important that students understand why certain rules or behaviours are imposed on them or why certain actions might be dangerous. You can always limit the scariness scope of an overly taxing situations by limiting choices and options through clear instructions and rules. Reduce the scope of a problem and you’ll make success much more achieveable.
Another experience from surfing was on this utmost importance of clear instructions, especially with difficult tasks. On a side note, to avoid any confusion: Surfing was a lot of fun overall, not to give a misleading impression, I just wanted to use the opportunity to point out some interesting observations on teaching. Anyway. In the high waves, the teachers hardly took any notice of me at all. As a novice, I had a hard time paddling against the force of the high waves and was constantly being carried away by the current. I was busy remembering where I was and keeping a vague orientation by looking for where the teachers were. Now was the time when I would have needed their help they had so over-abundantly and unnecessarily given to me in the shallows. I didn’t know whether I should just take the next wave I deemed ok (how the hell should I know which wave is ok? But anyway…) or if I should wait for the teacher to make that choice for me, which they had previously done most of the time.
In this difficult situation, however, they made no clear announcement of what I should do and when they took notice of me after I had spent almost 10 minutes paddling against the waves and waiting around for directions from them, both teachers gave me conflicting instructions. They told me to come over to them but my arms were so weak from paddling and the waves had gotten pretty violent, so it wasn’t easy for me to get to them. Then they decided I had drifted off too much and should just carefully get out of the water. I was shocked. Had I just wasted so much of my energy and didn’t even get one wave to ride? The situation had not only drained the physical energy of my arms and the heat out of my body, it had also drained me emotionally since there was no reward for putting in the effort. Afterwards, I sat on the beach resting a little bit and felt that I didn’t really want to get back in at all. I had lost my trust in the teachers. What if they’d let me rot out there in the waves again? I already didn’t have much energy left. Also I didn’t want the emotional blow of having to get back out again without getting one single wave. Maybe I was just tired, cold and stressing about the situation too much. But then again, I think this is exactly how most students feel when taught difficult subjects. They are left alone at sea in conditions nobody prepared them for.
Just a thought for now 😉
PS: Oh, and my experience would probably be a starting point of discussion on multiple teachers who are teaching overlapping topics in parallel but contradict themselves. But that’s a topic for another time…
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