Teaching to the choir

Although much of the reason that I am in graduate school is for an eventual career teaching college students, I have not had many opportunities to teach courses yet. Therefore, for a teaching reflection, I will be reflecting on other opportunities I have had to speak and the one or two opportunities I have had to give a guest lecture.

For the purposes of this blog, I will consider two different experience I’ve had related to teaching: (1) in the fall, when I gave a guest lecture for my advisor in a sophomore-level dynamics course, and (2) yesterday, when I got the opportunity to preach the sermon at my church, Fieldstone UMC. There are actually a surprising amount of similarities between the two experiences. Note: my faith is very important to me, but this is a blog about teaching.

In reflecting on these two experiences, I’ve noticed some things about my teaching style.

Examples are very important to me

Examples help illustrate concepts and help us connect ideas to things we can already wrap our heads around. Maybe its the engineer in me, but I think that examples make incredibly powerful teaching tools.

In the dynamics course, I was teaching about the impulse-momentum equation

J \equiv \int_{t_1}^{t_2} Fdt = mv_2-mv_1

Which says that there’s this thing called the impulse, J, that is equal to the change in momentum. It is a useful formula for studying things like the dynamics of billiards and car accidents. To introduce the topic to my class, though, I didn’t just give them that equation, because equations are scary. I showed a video of a golf ball deforming and talked about how the impulse represents the total effect of that deformation and restoration. Therefore, we don’t have to know the details of that deformation. All we need to know is the change in velocity of the club head in order to determine the velocity that the ball.

In the sermon, I was discussing how small actions can have a profound impact, and I shared a TED talk by Drew Dudley entitled Everyday Leadership. He shares the amazing story about a time that he gave a lollipop to a girl and it utterly changed her life. Thinking about how this moment where he had so profoundly impacted somebody without even remembering it, we can see how we may all be able to impact those around us through small actions.

Examples people something tangible to hold onto when discussions become abstract.

I like to make people move

As we’ve discussed in class, lectures can get boring and people don’t have the attention span. I like to make people move around the room if possible to get the blood flowing and to help them engage.

In the dynamics course, I used a sort of think-pair-share to get the students to try to apply the knowledge in small groups and then discuss with the class in order to make sure that students were engaging with the material rather than just listening to me drone on. In a boring class talking about a derivation, I had the students try it first. Then, they would have something to go from when we talked about the material in class.

During the sermon, I was trying to encourage people to be more conscious of creating a welcoming environment. In the middle of the sermon, I asked everyone to stand up and learn the name of one other person in the room. The room was immediately filled with energy and the rest of the sermon flowed from that energy.

Getting people physically moving during a lecture helps them be involved.

It’s important to keep people engaged

Engagement is hard to describe when giving a presentation of any kind, but it is the most important thing. I think that engagement is just something you can feel. It’s in eye contact and facial expressions, but it’s really just something that you can feel.

I felt it while performing in musicals in high school. I felt it I spent my first couple years of graduate school giving presentations to prospective students and their parents. I felt it yesterday while preaching, and I felt it from some of the students when I taught the dynamics class.

I don’t yet know how to improve that engagement in the classroom. I think that is something that I’ll be working at throughout my career as a teacher.

What do you think? Do you have any fun examples to share? Do you have fun ideas to get people moving in the classroom? Do you know what it feels like when the audience is engaged? Why is it so much harder to be an engaging speaker in a classroom environment?

Ignorance is bliss?

I don’t know anything about Thermodynamics.

It’s true. I got an A- in Thermodynamics, but I don’t know anything about Thermodynamics.

In that class, I had a very personal experience with Alfie Kohn’s assertion:

“Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task”

When I took Thermo, 5% of the course grade was homework. After two weeks of class, I found that I was spending 3-5 hours to do each homework, and they were due 3 times a week. I was getting bogged down in those assignments and I made a choice. I decided that I wasn’t going to do homework for that class. It turned out that I was missing something that would’ve made the homework a lot easier, but I had a preference for the easiest possible task. And I chose to take a 5 point hit on my final grade to spend my time better elsewhere.

I was doing very poorly in the class, but I can test like a pro. I crammed so hard for the final and actually got a 99. The professor curved the class like crazy and now I don’t know anything about Thermo but my undergrad GPA is okay.

And I was so proud of this at the time. Nowadays, I value homework so highly. It is the place where you have to try to wrestle with the material from class and actually learn things. Homework is where you put into practice all of the crazy things your professor talks about during the lecture.

I missed out on learning something because I was thinking about grades. Have you ever done that?

The pendulum swings

I think that Michael Wesch hits the nail on the head in his article Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance when he states in the first two sentences that,

The most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself. Students – our most important critics – are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.


A dominant problem in our educational system is that we lose the student by silencing their voice. We do not make the education relevant to their lives, and therefore they do not engage.

It is my opinion, though, that as we discuss solutions to this, we go too far. We, as people, have a tendency to rebel against one extreme by running to the other. When it’s cold outside, my mother cranks the heat in the car until I’m sweating. When all pop music sounded the same, we ended up with such levels of individuality that some music became hardly musical.

I think this can happen in education too. Today, Christine Ortiz, the Dean of the Graduate School at MIT announced that she is taking a leave to start a new university with “no majors, no lectures, and no classrooms.”

Too often we ignore the input of the student crying “This isn’t relevant to me!” But we need not run so far that we ignore wisdom of the faculty member saying “I know it’s a stretch for you, but this is really important for you to learn.” How do we provide a meaningful and significant experience for the student without losing the direction of their education?

The nice thing about the car heater is that it usually ends up at a comfortable temperature after a little bit of sweating. And thanks to those that have continually pushed the boundaries of music, we’ve ended up with so many original masterpieces.

We need people like Dr. Ortiz to help us push the pendulum in a new direction. I can’t wait to see where we end up.

Why is education significant to you?
What do you think of Dr. Ortiz’s new university?
Where do you think education is headed?