Want to Teach Better – Here’s My Ultimate Piece of Advice

My good friend C. J. Skender is an outstanding teacher at UNC (and genuinely nice guy).  He recently sent me a sheet of “Forever” stamps for my birthday that celebrated the work of Jaime Escalante.  You might already know about Jaime Escalante but, if not, I’ll talk a bit about him at the end of this blog posting.

I often have people ask for advice about teaching and I try my best to say something that might be insightful and helpful.   Unfortunately, it is often hit or miss.  But there is one piece of advice that I really think is the ultimate piece of advice that every teacher needs to consider if they truly want to grow in their work with students.

I was reminded of this by several things I read recently.

Story One:  Carole Bayer Sager has been a well-known writer of popular songs since the 1970s.  Her hits include “Don’t Say You Love Me,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”   She recently published an autobiography (They’re Playing Our Song) that was reviewed a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal.   

While having lunch at my favorite deli that day, I came across the following story in that book review:

“In high school, she and a classmate, Sherry Harway, made a dash for the piano every day after school and tried to emulate the words and melodies they were listening to up and down the AM dial. ‘I began to study every song I heard on the radio, dissecting each one to find out what was that special thing that made it a hit,’ she writes. ‘What wasn’t I doing yet?’

Story Two:  Somehow, I have recently gotten on a list where I receive regular emails full of teaching advice.  They are pretty good.   I try to read them as often as I can.  On October 24, I received one titled “Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Practical Points” by Linda B. Nilson.  It opened with these words.

“We all endorse it and we all want our students to do it. We also claim to teach it. ‘It’ is critical thinking, and very few of us actually teach it or even understand what it is (Paul & Elder, 2013). Research tells us that our students learn critical thinking only after we receive training in how to teach it and design our courses explicitly and intentionally to foster critical thinking skills (Abrami, Bernard, Borokhovski, Wade, Surkes, Tamim, & Zhang, 2008). We have to start by formulating assessable critical thinking learning outcomes and building our courses around them.”

For those of you who might want to read further:  Here are the two works cited.

Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Study of 38 public universities and 28 private universities to determine faculty emphasis on critical thinking in instruction. Available at http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/study-of-38-public-universities-and-28-private-universities-to-determine-faculty-emphasis-on-critical-thinking-in-instruction/598

Story Three:   A few years back, I wanted to get a better understanding of self-publishing so I wrote a book on success (Don’t Just Dream About Success—Stack the Odds in Your Favor) that I self-published.   It was a fun, learning experience for me.  In this book, I related (and discussed) a lot of stories that had influenced me over the past decades.   Here is one of my true favorites.

“Mark Rothko was a celebrated artist who worked during the middle part of the 20th century.  The website for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, provides this assessment of his influence on the world of art.

“’One of the preeminent artists of his generation, Mark Rothko is closely identified with the New York School, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art.  During a career that spanned five decades, he created a new and impassioned form of abstract painting.’

“In 2009, the play Red opened in London before eventually moving to Broadway in New York City and then throughout the United States.  The action is set in Rothko’s studio and consists of conversations between the artist and his young assistant.  Red was recently staged here in Richmond, Virginia.  I am no theater expert, but found the play funny, interesting, and insightful.  Although the entire production is a fascinating look at Rothko’s ideas and personality, one short monologue about a painting by Henri Matisse really caught my attention.  Those few lines have reverberated through my brain numerous times since that evening.

“In this particular scene, Rothko is describing the evolution of the unique style that made his art both famous and influential.  At a critical point early in his development as an artist, he discovered a work that truly intrigued him:  Matisse’s The Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Initially, he was baffled by how Matisse managed to create the painting’s stunning effect.   Unlike most people, Rothko could not let go of the need to understand what he was seeing.  How did the artist produce such a powerful impact?  What caused this mix of oils to be so mesmerizing?  Returning to the museum each day, he stood in front of the painting for hours analyzing Matisse’s techniques and talent.  According to the play, the daily pilgrimage continued until Rothko was able to unravel the mystery to his satisfaction.  He had a tenacious need to see more deeply—a characteristic that enabled him to grow artistically as he began to comprehend the secrets that made this painting great.

“He did not buy a book about Matisse and fall in line with some expert’s opinion.
“He did not take a class on Matisse so that a teacher could describe various theories about the work.
“He did not call Matisse on the telephone and ask for an explanation.
“He did not go online and pull up Matisse’s resume to discover the school where the artist had studied.

“No.  Rothko went back day after day, hour after hour, and stared obsessively at The Red Studio working to penetrate the wonder of its composition.  He was witnessing a work of genius which inspired him so completely that he was unable to rest until he mentally captured that essence.  Only then could those secrets be assimilated into his own artistic talent.  You cannot implement what you do not understand.”

Okay, what is the point of these three stories.   For me, the point is that becoming good at something does not happen by accident.  That’s the ultimate advice I can give to a person who wants to be a better teacher:   Being good doesn’t happen by accident.

--Carole Bayer Sager dissected the hit songs to try to determine what was special about them.
--Linda B. Nilson asserts that you cannot teach critical thinking simply because you say that you want to do it.   If that is the goal, then you have to learn how to do it and build the course entirely around that idea.
--Mark Rothko became one of the most influential artists of the last century because, at least in part, he obsessively spent hours coming to understand what made one painting so very magical.

Story Four:   Anyone who has read this blog knows by now that in 1991 (after about 20 years as a college professor) I switched from being a lecture style teacher to using the Socratic method exclusively.   I have told that story so often that people tell it back to me.  What I don’t tell people is that I spent the summer of 1991 breaking my teaching down into its smallest possible components:   how did I communicate with the students, how did I call on them in class, how often did I call on each one, how did I ask them to prepare for class, what did I ask them to do after class, how did I react to a missed question or a lack of effort, how did I test them, what did I do if I was unhappy with them (individually or specifically), how did I grade them, how available was I to mentor them, how did I motivate them, etc.   I tried to consider every aspect of my teaching.   Then, I tried to figure out which of those components was working and which were not working.   The parts that were working, I kept.   The parts that were not working, I tried to figure out how to fix.

If I became a better teacher after that, it was never because I switched to the Socratic Method.  It was because I invested a few months one summer thinking about every aspect of my teaching.

Story Five:   Okay, who is Jaime Escalante?  For 17 years, he was a high school math teacher in Los Angeles and the subject of the fabulous movie Stand and Deliver.  

I do not remember every detail of Stand and Deliver but Escalante becomes a teacher at a high school that is truly struggling.  In a very tough environment, the students seem lost and hopeless.   But, Escalante convinces several of these students to try preparing for the AP Calculus examination even though everyone else thought that was a useless idea for these students.   It seemed like a totally hopeless goal but, somehow, he managed to succeed, not just with a few students but with virtually all of his students.  I love that concept -- he succeeded with virtually all of his students.

According to Wikipedia, “In 1982, Escalante came into the national spotlight when 18 of his students passed the challenging Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service found these scores to be suspicious, because all of the students made exactly the same math error on problem #6, and also used the same unusual variable names. Fourteen of those who passed were asked to take the exam again. Twelve of the fourteen agreed to retake the test and all twelve did well enough to have their scores reinstated. In 1983, the number of students enrolling and passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 passed.”

Okay, you say you want to be a better teacher.  Great goal.   Watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me exactly how he did it.  Dissect the movie (to use Sager’s term).   Watch it a couple of times to see what you can catch.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  You are trying to understand teaching at its most fundamental level.  This guy is a true genius at teaching – heck, he has his portrait on a postage stamp.  You are not trying to become Escalante.  Rothko did not become Matisse.  Rothko used the Matisse work as his guide post – so that he could see how the magic was done?   My email address is jhoyle@richmond.edu.  If you truly want to get better, watch Stand and Deliver and then write and tell me (point by point), how he created that miracle.

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