The Teachers’ Charge

I was inspired to write a post about teaching after reading this very interesting post on the ACM blog about teaching programming to a highly motivated beginner coupled with my recent experiences as a graduate student.

Teaching students in any situation is challenging. Depending on the subject, the challenge can be even greater when the topics are technical and complicated, especially of the students aren’t accustomed to the particular level of detail or abstraction necessary to comprehend the material.

There is, however, one thing essential to learning no matter what the subject: the value of experiential learning. By that I mean the student experiencing the material for themselves in some visceral way. It’s taking a math problem and working it out for themselves; taking a computer program, typing it out, then modifying it to see how it changes; reading a story and then engaging in a thoughtful discourse about what the characters and the plot; taking a history lesson and then applying to their current historical moment.

Too often teachers, particularly those without the intuitive gift for instruction, feel that so long as they are making the information available to students, whether in a textbook, lecture, or PowerPoint slide, they’ve done all that’s required of them, ignorant of the grave disservice they’re doing to their students. Like taking a man to a lake full of fish without showing him how to cast a line, they’ve done nothing but make their students spectators to knowledge rather than participants. In some cases, this can be worse than not showing them anything at all.

As someone who’s taught both formally and informally throughout my academic and professional career, I take seriously this question of how we instruct others. I’m always disturbed by the victimization that goes on in some classrooms where students are set up for failure rather than success by teachers who either woefully ignorant or maliciously inept. I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Guo’s idea of “Struggle-based Learning,” but as he points out, there were some struggles important for his student to experience and some that clearly weren’t.  In my experience, many teachers are unable or unwilling to make that distinction.  I’ve struggled myself with how to put my ego and drive in the back seat while letting someone less experienced take the reigns on a task.  It takes patience but often that patience is well rewarded.

As teachers, instructors, or mentors, the goal should always be teaching our students, colleagues, or subordinates how to fish for themselves.  It’s something I struggle with, but then, sometimes struggling is the best way to learn.

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