The common image we have of teaching is one where a teacher is standing in the front of a classroom conveying knowledge to students who listen attentively. But that is only part of what teaching actually is. For it to be effective, knowledge should not just flow from the teacher to the students. The teacher has some learning to do as well. The implied co-learning makes teaching a demanding job. If you succeed, however, it can be immensely gratifying. Seeing the wheels of intelligent minds turn as the cogs align and understanding sinks in is an experience like no other. You just know you made a difference.
With some nerve, most of us can walk in front of a class and read off a set of teaching notes and/or ppt slides. That is not teaching. Or we feel comfortable just telling stories. That is not teaching either. Story telling is an effective communication tool that any seasoned teacher will use but stories by themselves convey little knowledge. They just catch the audience’s attention but that is only the beginning. For teaching to be effective, you also need to tune into their learning frequencies.
If you aspire to become an effective teacher, there are two things you need to assure yourself of before walking into the classroom: first. that you know the audience you are about to face, and second, that you understand what you are about to teach. As I write in my book, Rough Diamonds (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), both are necessary to turn on the lightbulbs in the learning minds of those in the audience. Let me explain in some detail what these requirements entail and why they are so important.
1. Know You Audience
This might sound obvious but this is where many teachers go wrong. Some even forget that there is an audience altogether! Even if nobody was there, they would still go through the same routine. That is obviously not teaching. Teaching is all about the audience and not about you. Your task is to plant the seeds of knowledge into their learning minds. Anything short of that is not teaching.
To get into those learning minds and tuning them to the frequency that you will deliver your knowledge on, you need to know four things about your audience. First, what is their level of understanding? Clearly, you do not explain black holes to an inquisitive 6-year old the same way you would to PhD students in astrophysics. You need to know their level of understanding. The simplicity you need to – or complexity you can – bring to your teaching depends very much on the audience’s level of understanding. We can all remember teachers who were just shooting way over our heads. If the back walls of classrooms could talk, many would have quite a story to tell.
Second, you need to understand how your audience constructs logic. If you have (or have had) small children, you will have learned that they have their own logic for how things work and that that logic can be quite different from yours. If you do not know how your audience makes sense of things, you won’t really know how to construct arguments to effectively convey new knowledge to them. For your teaching to be effective, you need to construct your arguments in line with the process of logic your audience follows and is familiar with. What you say has to make sense to your audience and not just to you.
Third, you need to know what contextual knowledge your audience is familiar with. They are likely to rely on that knowledge when they listen to you and interact with you. In trying to make sense of what you are saying, they will try to fit what they hear into the knowledge they already have in their heads. Knowing that knowledge and how it is configured in their minds will enable you to frame what you want to convey in ways that sound familiar (and credible) to them. To be effective, you need to tune into what they are already familiar with.
Fourth, you need to know where their heads are when they walk into the classroom. Don’t assume that because you are there, your audience’s’ heads will be there as well. Even if they tried, it is very unlikely that they left their own world behind at the classroom doorstep.
Effective teaching requires you as teacher to enter into your students’ world and not the other way around. To achieve that, I very often arrive a little earlier to chat with my students as they file into the classroom. This enables me to get a quick read on what is occupying their minds. I also make sure I know the news of the day and that I am aware of what is going on in the neighborhood. All these give me possible entry points into their minds. To be effective, you really need to known and align with your audience.
2. Know Your Stuff
You have to understand what you are going to teach very well. If you don’t, it will be virtually impossible to coney it to an audience. In that regard, I often use the Richard Feynman yardstick to judge whether someone really understands something. The famous physicist and Nobel laureate suggested that if you want to check whether you understand something, try explaining it in simple terms to a novice. This is the challenge we all have as parents. When our kids start asking questions, we very quickly find out how thin the ice is that we are standing on. The same will happen when you walk in front of your students not having a robust understanding of what it is that you are about to teach them. Knowing something is not quite the same as understanding it. We all witness that on almost a daily basis. Effective teaching requires a deep understanding of what it is you want to teach.
In essence, my point is that effective teaching is an exercise in co-learning. Not only are the students there to learn but so are you. As teacher, you need to learn who they are and you also need to learn at great depth what you are about to teach them. If your own understanding of the material is shallow, don’t go out and teach it yet. Work on improving it first. Getting a solid grip on the material will enable you to teach it effectively. As a side benefit, it will also enhance your credibility as a teacher in the eyes of your students. That, in turn, will further enhance your effectiveness in working with them.
Effective teaching is as much about learning as it is about teaching. It is a two-way co-learning process, so keep learning. You, your students, and your teaching can only benefit from that.