Time to Think Differently


One of the great benefits of teaching is that the summer is available.   We can do research and writing.  Or, we can work to improve our teaching.   “How can my next class be better than my last class?” is a great question to ponder during the summer break.   You have had a couple of months of break – how often have you addressed that question?  

I am a strong proponent that everyone needs to learn to think differently about the challenges they face.   If you think like everyone else, you will wind up being average by definition.   In my book Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor, I devote an entire chapter to the challenge of learning to “Think Differently.”   Here is just one of the suggestions that I put forward in that book:

“’How could this have been improved?’ is a great question to consider throughout your daily wanderings.   It stimulates critical thinking.   Let your mind expand to consider the widest possible range of answers.   Except for the Ten Commandments, nothing in life is really carved in stone.   Almost any service, product, or arrangement can be helped by a bit of innovative questioning.   I have no proof, but I suspect that the employees at Apple, Google, and Amazon spend more time seeking out better questions and fewer hours defending the status quo.”

“Defending the status quo” – in most operations, there is too little time spent thinking differently and way too much time spent defending the status quo.   I think that is true for teaching just as it is for many other things in life.

So, recently, I was thrilled to read the book Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner who had previously written Freakonomics andSuperFreakonomics.    I won’t try to boil down Think like a Freak into a few sentences but the authors argue (as I do in my book) that we are too quick to accept the status quo without question.   They stress asking better and better questions and then analyzing all available data to figure out the actual results and what caused them.   They write about taking traditional thinking apart—piece by piece—so that innovative alternatives can be tested.   All of that seems to be inherently obvious but it is very easy to accept “traditional wisdom” and be accepting of the status quo even when the end results are not as hoped.   Is your teaching being saddled by the traditional wisdom and the status quo?   In their book, these authors had two words that I liked especially:   “experiment endlessly.”  

When is the last time, you seriously experimented with your class organization and structure?

I liked Think Like a Freak so much that I wanted to share its wisdom with my students.   I believed they could learn something of value that might carry over into the fall semester and make them better students.   Here was the question I needed to address:    How could I encourage my students to read this book during summer break?   The writing style is lively and fun and the topics (how can a person break the world record for eating hot dogs?) are amusing and insightful.  But students are not inclined to read a serious book during their vacation time.

I wrote my junior students for the fall and told them about the book and why I had liked it.    I figured that would get their attention.   Then, I told them that I would give each person who read the book over the summer 2 ½ extra points on our first test in the fall (out of three tests and a final exam) if they had read the book by that time.   Therefore, they weren’t reading the book for fun.   They were reading the book to earn extra credit on the first test in a difficult course.   That provides motivation.   That is enough points to be helpful to their grade but not enough points to guarantee too much of an improvement.  

Since that time, I have heard from approximately 1/4 of the students who talked about reading the book and how much they were enjoying thinking about thinking.   Here’s a note I got yesterday:

I have been reading the Think Like a Freak book that you had recommended, and this has surely helped me view general problems (even personal ones) differently. I really believe that by the end of the book, I will be able to think through problems more efficiently, and hopefully use it toward the accounting problems this fall. 

Is that kind of insight worth 2 ½ points on one test?  I certainly think so.   Reading is always good for people.   I think this particular reading can be especially helpful to the students which might make them more successful (and my life somewhat easier) in the fall.  I am more than happy to give up those 2 ½ points for that potential benefit.

What are the lessons that I think can be learned from this particular experiment?

--Never stop trying to get your students to do things that improve their chances of reaching your goals for them.   Do not feel confined to the few months that make up a semester.   Many of these students are working hard for me, well before the semester even begins.

--College students need a little push.   They are human beings.   They have a lot of things that need to get done in their lives.   If you ask them to do something without a reward, it probably will never get done.   We all know that.   They are too busy or get distracted and, pretty soon, the time has passed and the opportunity is lost.   Give them a push. 

--Even a small amount of motivation can get good results.    For 2 ½ points on one test, a number of them will read a book that might change their entire way of thinking.   You do not have to give away the bank to get students to do work.   But, it is extremely helpful to have a specific reward system in order to provide a justification for doing the work requested.   It does not have to be much but it does need to be some.

Okay, that is one way I thought differently about the upcoming semester.   What about you?   What kind of innovations have you considered?   What kind of experiments might help your students to work harder and learn more?   That is one of the benefits of summer—you have time to come up with a great answer.
 

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