It is the beginning of a new academic year: time for teachers to prepare lesson plans and to think about ways to engage students in learning material and activities. Truth be told, although the content of what needs to be taught can be well defined, our ability to predict how students will respond to the way in which we present the material—in other words, teaching—remains elusive.
How we presented material to students last year may not necessarily work for a new group of students. However, as we gain experience in teaching, we become more confident that we are able to trust our “sixth sense” or gut feeling when it comes to predicting how our students might respond. We often assume that, based on our years of teaching experience, we understand our students well enough to accurately predict how they could respond. We tend to trust our intuition to guide our teaching.
I recall an interaction I had with a teacher who shared with me that she was disappointed with how her 6th grade class responded to some material she presented. The prior year students enjoyed the activities and the reading materials. This year, however, most of the students in the class seemed uninterested and bored with what she had to offer. She confided to me that she found this class particularly demanding, as they did not seem to relate to her way of teaching. As I too could recall similar teaching experiences at the college level, we could explore together how to approach such a rude “wake-up call”!
Two issues came to mind as we talked. The first related to the changing nature of the student population and the impact of technology on teaching. The present generation of students is significantly different from past generations, due largely to their frequent use of technology and constant exposure to information on the web. Rather than simply researching, reading, and reflecting (which must seem, at least to students accustomed to acquiring factoids at the press of a button, an unbearably plodding manner of absorbing and processing knowledge), they often prefer to engage in “activities,” preferably in short bursts, as a means of learning. They may be eager to learn, but many may also be impatient. Individually, they have distinct values that influence how they like to participate in learning. Moreover, they thrive on personalized learning opportunities, delivered on their own terms and in ways that can help them remain relevant in an ever-changing job market.
The second point of discussion revolved around how much trust we can put into our own assessment of how well we understand our students.
A book by Nicholas Epley, entitled Mindwise (2014) deals with the ability to “read” people and explains that we are often confident we understand others, when in fact science shows that we are frequently wrong in our assumptions of what others enjoy or understand. Epley gives an example (p. 6) of co-workers and their impressions of you and writes that even though you may know, for example, that your co-workers think you are rather smart, they also vary in their impression of you. Some may think that you are as sharp as a knife, while others think you are as dumb as a spoon. How accurately are you able to know the difference? Evidently, not accurately at all!
He explains that the accuracy rates across the experiments they conducted were barely better than random guessing—only slightly higher than if you had no relationship with the individual whatsoever (correlation of 0.13). He also shows that hanging around with people for a significant amount of time does not really make a difference (average correlation was 0.18)—which is a sobering thought for all our interactions with colleagues and students!
He goes on to describe these misperceptions as “the lens problem,” which refers to one’s inability to really step out of oneself. When you look through a lens, it can be very difficult to tell when your own view is distorted by it. One’s interpretation of students’ behavior, therefore, is bound to find the errors which exist in “them” or their behavior, rather than you and your understanding of them.
Here is the challenge: How does one cultivate an awareness of one’s own biases while teaching? Is it realistic to deepen one’s understanding of students in a class where noise levels are high and other distractions abound? Epley zooms in on listening and observing others as a way to deepen understanding, which we all know is at the core of good teaching.
However, I think we often discount the importance of 15–30-second observations of students in the classroom. Observation need not take a great deal of time; rather, it asks for teachers to be aware of paying attention to students during short periods of observation in order to become more informed about how students experience classroom learning. Building in short observation periods during each day could, in fact, make a huge difference—if we allow ourselves to listen and observe without bias.
As we discussed in a previous blog on Listening, Communication Intent, and Rabbits, the ability to stop in the midst of activities can make all the difference in the world to successful teaching.