I recently finished reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.   One of Leonardo’s primary characteristics was that he would grow curious about something (the tongue of a woodpecker, for example, or the swirling pattern of flowing water) and become so obsessed that he would want to learn everything that could be known about the topic.   I think I am picking up that trait when it comes to the secret (or secrets) of great teaching.   It is probably a topic that I could spend a lifetime exploring. 

I posted a blog recently on this site about the secret of great teaching.  My proposition was that great teaching requires great goals.   Any person who wants to become a great teacher (or great at anything else for that matter) needs to establish truly great goals. 

I received several emails from readers ( talking about either great goals or great teaching (or both).  I always love hearing from other teachers.  

After some thought, I want to add a second secret for great teaching.   Here it is:   I think it is virtually impossible to be a great teacher without some effective method of communicating with students (beyond the classroom).  
--I believe you can be a good teacher without an outside method of communications.  
--I believe you can be a great lecturer without an outside method of communications. 
--I believe you can be an extremely popular teacher without an outside method of communications. 

Nevertheless, I do not believe you can be a great teacher without some independent means of communicating with your students.   Great learning requires some amount of interaction beyond the typical 150 classroom minutes per week.  

Although the first class of my fall semester is not for another three months, I have already emailed my new students several times in order to start guiding them toward becoming the students that I want them to be.   If I wait until the first class to begin creating that influence, the battle is probably already lost.   However, if I can give them some hints in advance, if I can provide them with reasons to believe the material is worth learning, if I can assist them in becoming effective learners and successful students, the odds of a great semester skyrocket.   That requires communication that starts well before the class begins.

As an example, I sent the following email to my students this morning.   In it, I want to combine my two teaching secrets—great goals and effective communications.   Notice in the first part, I am trying to help them identify specific goals (rather than dreams) that really will help them improve as students.  In the second part of the note, I am trying to influence their attitudes.   I want them to view the challenging nature of my class as a positive and not as a negative.   In learning, a good attitude can make all the difference in the world.  If a student has the right attitude, this job gets much easier very quickly.

If you have email addresses for your next group of students, what kinds of communications can you use over the summer to help ensure a great fall class?

Email to my students:

(1) – Comment Number One.   I maintain a teaching blog and have done so for years.  I write about teaching and how I believe it should be done.   In my latest posting, I talk about my thoughts on the secret to great teaching.   As I see it, the secret of great teaching is having great goals.  In this essay, I include the following lines, which I thought you might find interesting.   “I am 100 percent sure that it is impossible to be great without great goals.  In fact, I think that is a limitation that students also have.  They have average goals and are then disappointed when they earn average grades.”

As you ponder the upcoming fall semester, do you have (a) great goals, (b) mediocre goals, or (c) no goals at all?   For most students, the answer is somewhere between (b) and (c).   Then, in December when they get their grades, they are frequently disappointed.   “I’m not sure why I didn’t do better,” is a refrain that I hear often.   I suspect one of the reasons is that they simply had no goals that inspired and guided them to do well.  

Okay, I already know the most likely response, “I have a goal of making an A in Professor Hoyle’s class.”   That is NOT a goal.   That is a dream.   To me, that is a real problem for great education.   Students have dreams that they mistake for goals. 

A goal sounds something like this:
--I have a goal of studying 10 hours each and every week in Professor Hoyle’s class.   I’ll keep a diary and see if I make it.   No matter what is happening, I will have no week where I spend under 10 hours in class preparation.
--I have a goal of walking into class with good answers for 75 percent of the assigned problems and adequate answers for 25 percent of the assigned problems.   I will never never never walk into class without a legitimate answer because I will never understand what is happening in class.
--I have a goal of answering any extra assigned problems that come from Professor Hoyle (this is a common occurrence) within 48 hours and immediately going to see him if I cannot get the answer in a reasonable period of time.   If I am still struggling, I’ll ask for an additional problem so I can keep practicing.

Listen, if you just set these three goals right now and stick with them, I think you’ll do great.  I make no guarantees, but these are great goals.   This process is not rocket science.  Do the work.   “I have a goal of making an A” is a dream.   You need to have goals that you can put into actual practice every single day of the semester.

It is not required but if you are interested in reading my posting on great goals, here is the URL:

(2) – Comment Number Two – Back in April, at our Senior Recognition Dinner, I was named “the Most Challenging Professor” for the entire school.   Is that good or bad?   Sometimes, it is hard to tell.

I went to the gym near my house this morning.   On a big sign out front, they had posted this sentence, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”   I realize that most of you will be juniors in college this fall.   For me, college has one major purpose:   To help you make the transition from being a high school student to being a well-adjusted, thoughtful adult.   If you didn’t want to change, if you really wanted to stay a high school kid for the rest of your life, you could have saved a lot of money by not going to college.

Here’s a question that I would like for you to ponder over the summer.   Which of these two statements sounds like you?

--Yeah, within reason, I really do want to be challenged.
--No, I am perfectly content not to be challenged. 

I think you will do better if you walk into my class and honestly say to yourself, “I am no longer a high school student.  I am ready to be challenged.” 

Something to consider:   If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.


My two secrets to great teaching.
--Have great goals that guide and inspire you.
--Set up a system of effective communications with your students so that you have a way to guide and inspire them.

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