Teaching with Intention

As a life-long student, I’ve been in many classes where the instructor approached a lecture like a monologue scripted beforehand and (attempted to be) delivered flawlessly. The experience was stale and uninteresting. Despite the best efforts of the instructor, I’m sure I retained little if any of the information he or she presented mostly because the class wasn’t about me as the learner, but about the instructor as performer. Questions may have been entertained but the core of what was happening changed little based on whether I or my fellow classmates actually comprehended the material.

As both a student and instructor, I’ve come to believe there is no such thing as a fully scripted learning experience, nor should there be. Learning takes place in the dynamism of the moment, in the flashes of inspiration and the insights gained from momentary curiosity. To presuppose the learning path for each student is a lesson in futility for the instructor and a recipe of boredom for the participants.

So what is an instructor to do? I believe the important quality for teaching is intentionality. No one follows a ship’s captain because they know every inch of the course, but because he or she knows the destination and how to encounter the challenges along the journey. The captain guides the actions of a multitude toward the common goal guided by this intention to arrive at a place others may not be able to see.

The same is true of instructors. In education, the intention for a course is captured in the learning objectives. In my experience, students would rather be in class with someone who knew the objectives of the class, rather than a fully conceived plan. By keeping the objectives in mind rather than the script, I’m able to be much more flexible and dynamic in my teaching, ensuring the needs of my students are met and I advance them all towards my overarching goals. The very idea of the learning experience as being a “course of study” even reinforces this notion of learning as a journey.

For example, I had an incident in my first class where I unceremoniously dumped water all over my laptop halfway through an 8 hour class, effectively ending it’s utility for the rest of the class period. Thankfully we’d already gone through most of the material and I’d intended for them to start working more on their own. After taking a quick break to wipe off as much water as I could, I decided (or rather was compelled) to let them drive the class. Instead of me leading demos, they led them. I turned them loose to start exploring. When someone had a question, I had them connect their laptop to the projector and demo what they’d done and helped them work through the question. This freed me up to float around and see how people were doing, making the interaction more dynamic. They all seemed to have enjoyed the class and considering they were finishing up their 8th hour in a classroom on a lovely Saturday afternoon and weren’t rushing for the exits, I considered the class a success. They were engaged and seemed to enjoy what we’d covered.

This was an example where keeping in mind my intention for the course, namely that they would get practice and begin to master the necessary skills, was fulfilled despite a change in how I achieved this intention. I’ve taught a wide-range of students a varied menu of topics and in each case, I’ve had to draw on my personal experience to lay the foundation for a learning experience I couldn’t control but only guide and shape as things went on. When I’ve crashed the ship on the shore of incomprehensibility (as has been too often the case), I like to think the goodwill of my students was what got the craft back into the water and on its way, rather than any Herculean effort on my part to save them from their confusion.

So I embark on my next journey teaching at Columbia University as an adjunct professor in the Lede Program with a full intention and a flexible approach to the learning I know will happen, one way or another.

EDIT: The third to last paragraph has been revised to remove grammar errors and improve readability.

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