Becoming a better teacher: Fish is Fish

This summer, I’ll be the Instructor of Record (real teacher, not Teaching Assistant) for the first time. I’m teaching Research Methods, which is a “lower level” (mainly first- and second-year undergrads) course that I’ve TAed for twice, and I really enjoy its content. Because I’m participating in UCSD’s Summer Graduate Teaching Scholar Program, I have to complete a course called Teaching + Learning at the College Level. We’re two weeks in, and I’ve picked up some interesting nuggets from the readings and class discussions, but one analogy in particular is still on my mind.

We talked about the children’s story Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni. I’m kind of glad I never encountered this story when I was a kid because its novelty had a great impact on 25-year old me. The story is about a fish and tadpole who wonder what life on land is like. Eventually the tadpole becomes a frog who can leave the water to learn about the land. He reports back to the fish, listing off features of things on land. Cows, he says, have black spots, four legs, and udders. The frog describes birds and people too, and here’s what the fish imagines:

fish is fish.jpg
Image: The Eric Carle Museum

The fish and the frog are talking about the same things, and they assume that they have common concepts of cows and birds and people, but their actual mental representations — what they see in their mind’s eye — of these things are quite different. If the fish had been given a traditional paper and pencil test that asked him to define a cow, he’d be correct in writing that it has 4 legs, black spots, and udders. He’d ace the test, fooling not only the teacher, but also himself, into thinking he actually knows what a cow is.

The takeaway, of course, is to try to make sure your students aren’t fish. Find ways to lead them beyond their fishy cow concepts, which can especially be hard when they’ve never been on land and they come to class knowing only what fish are like. Students almost always need foundational knowledge in order to understand a new concept, and there’s a good chance that at least some of the students in any class are missing that foundation.  Instructors need to be mindful that there will be times when they have to step back to assess and teach prerequisite knowledge before launching into an hour-long lecture about cows (or cognition). And then once they think the students actually know what cows are, it’s important to provide assessments that actually test understanding, and not just memorization.

There are plenty of things I might not pull off perfectly when I teach for the first time this summer, but I do feel confident that I’ll at least be on a quest to help the fish in the class become frogs so they can see what cows are really like.

Teachers of all levels and subjects: I invite you to share how you make sure your students are truly understanding and not simply parroting. How do you make sure their concepts of the cow are really cow-like, and not just fish with spots and udders?

Back to school inspiration

The beginning of September marks the traditional start of a new school year, even if in reality, many start sooner or later. A few pieces of back-to-school inspiration:

The first is a blog post, How to learn anything better by tweaking your mindset. The post describes a study in which two groups were taught the exact same information, but one group was told ahead of time that they’d later need to teach the information to someone, and the other group was told they’d be tested on the material. In actuality, no one had to teach the information to someone new, and participants in both groups received the same post-learning test. Those who had been planning to teach the new info, however, did significantly better on the test than those who were planning on being tested. The bottom line is that when we learn something with the intent of teaching it, we actually synthesize the information more and mentally organize it better than when we believe we’re learning for a test.

Anecdotally, I find this true. The classes I’ve TA’ed in the past year have been outside my realm of knowledge, but I knew I’d have to get up in front of a group of students just a few days after hearing the professor’s lecture and help the students synthesize the information presented and answer questions about it. I’d never have a written test on the material, as the students would, but I’d have an oral one when leading discussion. Technically, the stakes were low for me – I wasn’t going to get a bad grade or lose my job as a TA, but learning the information in order to be a competent teacher seemed crucial. As a result, I went into sponge mode right before every lecture, and I believe that I sopped up much more information and made stronger connections among the things being taught than if I had been a student expecting to be tested on it later.

On a related note, Khan Academy reminds us that You can learn anything.  Even though we often have to fail before we can succeed, “thankfully, we’re built to learn.” Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 12.38.48 PM

What teaching has taught me

In some way or another, I have loved teaching since I was young. As a first grader, I went with my mom to parent-teacher conferences so I could read to the parents waiting for their appointments. I bribed my younger sisters to play school with me, so that I could teach them the skills I was learning in school and assign them homework (for the record, they did not complete the homework). As soon as I was old enough, I established my own tutoring business and learned how rewarding teaching can be. As an undergraduate my job was to hold office for cog sci students struggling with assignments.

This quarter, I gained a lot more experience in conventional teaching: standing up in front of a group (of 10 high school students, in the case of my SAT class, or 50 undergraduates in the case of my Teaching Assistant position), lecturing, and doing whatever I could think of to get them to voluntarily participate. Especially towards the beginning of the quarter, standing in front of the class gave me (literally) cold feet and sweaty armpits. But I dealt with these consequences, and after reflecting, have some new ideas about teaching.

On the broadest level, teaching is such a unique form of human interaction. It has similarities to parenting: there is an established hierarchy, often based on age and experience, and welcomed by both parties. A teacher wants to be more knowledgable than his student, and a student wants her teacher to be more knowledgeable than she. If successful, a teacher-student relationship brings positive feelings to both people involved. The student feels accomplished by learning, and the teacher by teaching. When a student is successful, he and his teacher likely feel similarly to how a child and parent feel when the child is successful. Unlike in a parent-child relationship, though, interactions between teachers and students are almost always centered on one topic. Thus, they’re deep and focused interactions, as opposed to a parent’s varied and broad interactions with a child. The similarities are even more interesting to me in light of this difference.

I had both positive and negative experiences in the classroom. When a college student was unhappy with a quiz grade, she e-attacked me. The contraction “y’all” appeared 4 times (though one of those times it was in the form of “y’all’s,” an entirely new form to me) alongside a handful of spelling and grammatical errors and an accusation that the teaching team doesn’t want our students to succeed. And of course the icing on the cake: “Sent from my iPhone.” Luckily this message was comical enough that it wasn’t upsetting, but I’d prefer this sort of quasi-aggression if possible.

But on the other hand, plenty of students expressed positive experiences in my classes. One student wrote to me, “I was not expecting to learn this much, and I’m kind of sad that it is almost over.” Don’t worry, I want to assure her, I won’t tell anyone that you seem to kind of like our SAT classes. But I might tell them how much I do.