This week I (we – our lovely cohort) had the privilege of receiving a guest lecture from Dr. John Van Niel (try out his own blog here). While the lectures itself offered insightful and pedagogically-relevant information about the different wildlife that does, and does not, live in New York state, the real focal point was how the lecture itself was delivered.
Dr. Van Niel, with almost uncanny skill, managed to route our existing sets knowledge and misconceptions with the artifacts of knowledge that he provided us with. As my recollection of the specifics of this skillful demonstration is reliant on my notes from the event (the schedule of a preservice teacher allows little time for memory consolidations), I will simply offer and elaborate on specific observations that I deemed worthy of notation. As these notes were written for my own personal use, they are written prescriptively. But as usual, please feel free to offer all criticisms that you might have about them.
- Whenever possible, let students hold on to their mistakes, rather than prompting their correction. Mistakes can offer a useful and insightful “breadcrumbs” that can identify the path that a student took while attempting to solve a problem. Letting the mistake remain visible can thus allow both students and teacher the opportunity to learn from the mistake by understanding how it was made in the first place.
- If students have different ideas from your own, try to provide them with an opportunity to prove you wrong. Few things are as universally satisfying as a chance to correct the teacher. A challenge or alternative to your own explanation can provide our students with a unique opportunity to put real cognitive effort in the authentically engaging task of supporting your point. If their argument ultimately fails, remember the first point and contemplate with them what was the error in the path to their argument. If their argument ultimately succeeds, even better – you’ve learned something new!
- Use surprising facts generously. We always pay more attention to things that surprise us – it’s just how we’re wired. When you have an opportunity to use a surprising piece of trivia to support a potentially mundane point – take it! Student will then likely have mnemonic relationship between the mundane and the surprising, and end up remembering both.
- If nothing else, students need to leave your lesson with some novel connection between the knowledge that they came with, and the one you imparted on them. We rarely remember facts; and this is doubly true when (as is often the case of school-learned facts) for decontextualized ones. Student will likely forget the name of a species, or the name of a specific kind of tooth. They are, however, likely to remember that a specific type of rat can in fact be found in the state that there in, simply because their hypothesis that all rats are everywhere is generally true.
- We ought not to expect students to give us the answer that we want. Rather, all that we can ask of them is that they use the sum of what they know in the most appropriate way. We need to evaluate our students based on what they know, not what they don’t. If they truly exhausted their cognitive resources, then we absolutely must acknowledge it, regardless whether they came up with the correct answer or not.
- FINALLY, always know the difference between the trivia that you teach, and the fundamental understanding that allows that trivia to become discoverable. The facts that we choose to teach our students are always subjected to at least some level of arbitrariness. We might choose some species, for example, to represent a population type, while another species would work just the same. We may focus on the structure of a specific enzyme, while a multitude of others would offer a very similar insight. These are all trivia. Factoids that convey examples of the principles that we ought to care about. Whether a remembers the names of species should not matter nearly as much as whether they remember the population dynamics that facilitate its existence. Whether a student remembers the name of an enzyme should not matter nearly as much as whether the understand the underlying protein-specific interactions that facilitate its function.
There are few things more humbling and inspiring that seeing the thing that you do well being done well. On behalf of my myself and my cohort, I am truly grateful for Dr. Van Niel’s visit. Having seen for myself the pedagogical heights that can be reached in just one hour, I have no excuse not to reach for such heights myself. Thank you.