The Cœur of the Matter

Karen3Sometimes I have trouble getting out of my car after arriving in the Fort Campbell Education Center parking lot. I’m stuck not because I’m dreading work—I truly love my job—but because NPR’s Fresh Air is just too interesting to leave. Today, Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, interviewed Maggie Smith, legendary actress, Academy Award winner, and portrayer of the incomparable Dowager Countess Violet Grantham on Downton Abbey. What a treat, and a great way to start the day.maggie smith1

Well into the interview, Davies asked a question that elicited an interesting response:

“DAVIES: Were you an entertaining kid to your friends? Did you make them laugh?

SMITH: I don’t remember doing that particularly. I went to a school where they were – well, no, they did plays and things. I was never in those, really. But I had a very good English teacher who said to me that she thought I ought to do it. She – I don’t know, she saw something thank goodness because I think if it hadn’t been encouraged by somebody that serious, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me.” (emphasis mine)

encourageheartEncourage is an interesting word, its etymological roots in the French word cœur for “heart.” To encourage is literally “to put the heart in,” while to discourage is “to take the heart out of.”  Surely an anatomy teacher should have known this. If our students are to experience the pleasure that comes from meeting an achievable challenge, we need to do a lot of encouraging.

Later in the interview, Davies invited Smith to comment on her Oscar-winning performance in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith portrayed a charismatic and controversial teacher at a conservative girls’ school in Scotland. Predictably, Brodie runs afoul of her headmistress. Their exchange includes this gem from Smith’s character:missjean

“To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ex meaning out and ducere, I lead. To me, education is simply a leading out of what is already there.”

Well said, Miss Jean. Perhaps the best way to encourage our students, to put the heart into them, is to lead them out of their self-doubt and poor habits into a better way of thinking and behaving, regardless of our discipline. To finish with another quote from Miss Jean’s defense of her methods:

“My credo is lift, enliven, stimulate.”

You can read a transcript—or, better yet, listen to Smith’s incomparable delivery—at


Finding the Right Idea

Brian picI’m trying to think of something where finding the right idea is unimportant. Nothing gets going, or keeps going, without an idea behind it, just as nothing gets discontinued without that becoming the right idea.

Ideas start out eluding us. They exist beyond the familiar, ready to appear when the thinker is in think mode and receptive. No matter how aggressive or assertive a person is, ideas do not reward only aggressive and assertive people but await entry into those who diminish themselves enough to receive. This does not devalue the thinker; in fact, it recognizes that the person who thinks, is an ebb and flow person—someone who receives as well as transmits.

Once someone catches on to this, ideas come. The wait may be shorter or longer, for ideas like to test thinkers to see if they can hold out until the idea makes itself known. Chronically impulsive people do not do well at this until they slow down and accept that ideas respect speed at times, even haste, but not impulsiveness.idea1

When an idea comes, communication follows. It can be verbal or written, or even nonverbal or technologically communicated. Probably though, after passing all forms of communication through a sieve, what is left will be a significant deposit of verbal and written particles.

As much as ideas like to be spoken or written, they also like it when clutter is not forced upon them. A good idea may have lots of other ideas suddenly spark up into a field of ideas. Any or all of the ideas can have details that work well with them. Before long, the scene can be like the overstuffed closet that too much was thrown into. The closet just can’t hold all of that.

overflowing-closetSome of the other ideas may have to die off, or else be relocated to another closet for another discourse. As democratic as ideas are, they know that for a good idea to shine, it must not be presented with too many other ideas or nonessential information. Often times, an idea can gain power and focus by what is taken away around it, so that it now stands in clearer relief. As useful as the other ideas and information may be, it may not be the time for them to be front stage, or even on stage.

In order not to offend other good ideas and information, it can be helpful to write them down. That way, they know that they are preserved and regarded. Of course, if an idea is a bad idea and always will be a bad idea, it can go unrecorded. For example, pernicious ideas can be easily dismissed since they might lead to criminal behavior.idea3

Most of the time, however, a bad idea is only bad in a certain setting, but perfect in another. Suppose someone gets the idea to eat pizza five days in a row for every meal. This is hard to imagine as a healthy option, unless amazing amounts of nutritious food groups make their way onto perhaps thin crust pizza. But for the person stranded for five days without food except for grossly unhealthy pizza, I would say eat that pizza every meal.

Ideas are fun. It can be tense hoping for one and waiting for one. Those who learn receptivity get more at ease and consistent, but they are never without tension in the process because what is unknown at first always has its mystique; yet even at that, getting ideas becomes an adventure, not a dreaded adversity.

idea4Communication is also fun. Ideas take pleasure in being depicted, and they don’t mind expressers having to take public speaking, composition, or other courses in which ideas come to thinkers for articulation. When communication bogs down or gets tense (the inevitable goads to persistence), take a break or relax. Ideas flourish in low intensity as well as high intensity.

For those who have had those courses and are now regular practitioners, they will tell you that the whole process from receptivity to expression never loses its joy. If the world ever learns to get on without ideas, I would like to know who got the idea behind that and how it is applied. I’m not worried about it happening though.

Peyton Scores…In Anatomy Class

Two-time Super Bowl champ Peyton Manning can throw a football, and he’s also quite the salesman. His ads for Nationwide Insurance have spawned a running gag at our house, where my dear husband might hear the Nationwide tune as:”Thought that trash was going out” or “Don’t forget to pick up milk.” We also offer compliments: “You’re sure looking sharp today.” Or questions: “Do you want to walk the dog?”

All in good fun, but I wondered if I could harness the power of the earworm in the service of learning. Last week my students tackled the respiratory system, and they needed to get a grip on three gas laws: Boyle’s, Dalton’s, and Henry’s. Experience has shown me that as soon as they see a simple equation like P1V1 = P2V2, they just tune out. I’ve tried blowing up balloons and pumping up bike tires, but nothing seems to consistently help them to grasp that Boyle’s law states that pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional. (Really, who wouldn’t find that just fascinating?) Yet I know that they are going to encounter that little factoid on admission and licensing exams. The people who make those nasty tests love that stuff…they just do.Boyles_Law_animated

And so I dreamed up a few Nationwide ditties for our class, including “Pressure/volume is Boyle’s Law.” I added some others for the other two laws, as well as a few other need-to-knows about breathing. Suppressing my stage fright, I yodeled a couple of these in class. To my surprise and delight, the students scribbled down my lyrics and came up with some others that were better than mine. Pleasure in learning in action.

But the proof is in the pudding.  On the next quiz, I asked which gas law describes the inversely proportional relationship between pressure and volume…fill-in-the-blank, not multiple choice. Typically, about half my students respond appropriately. This time, every single student answered the question correctly. Boo-rah!

incredible-musicObviously, this won’t work for every challenging bit of content. But for tricky groups of similar items that need to be distinguished from one another, it seems to work. Office mate Anne teaches her psychology students about a variety of learning theories, and students tend to confuse them. She came up with “Piaget is peek-a-boo” to help students remember Piaget’s ideas about children’s acquisition of the idea of object permanence. Maybe your class has a spot for this trick. After all (altogether now!):

“Learning works best when it’s fun.”

Say What?

Building SkillsWe’ve been exploring a list of “Top 10 Communication Skills” for today’s job market. The #1 skill is not providing information, but taking it in. This is listening. When you hang around with other teachers, you often hear someone moan, “They just don’t listen.” They, of course, are students. We, of course, are professionals who listen carefully. Sure we do.listening1

According to Mindtools,

“…research suggests that we remember between 25 percent and 50 percent of what we hear. That means that when you talk to your boss, colleagues, customers or spouse for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of the conversation. This is dismal!

Turn it around and it reveals that when you are receiving directions or being presented with information, you aren’t hearing the whole message either. You hope the important parts are captured in your 25-50 percent, but what if they’re not?”

What can we do to improve? A recently published book by Caroline Web, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life,  (whew!) recommends the tried-and-true “active listening” technique of repeating what you’ve just heard back to the speaker. Webb notes that this is particularly helpful when you don’t agree with a colleague, as the speaker feels affirmed even if you don’t join their side of the argument.

If you aren’t buying the whole active listening thing, then consider your own experiences in teaching. Haven’t you had a student in class who seems to hang on your every word? listening2Maybe she nods or smiles or furrows her brow in thought. Maybe her face says “Aha!” as she scribbles your pearls of wisdom in her notes.  Isn’t it easy to start speaking just to her, rather than the classmate who’s looking at her lap (where the phone is) or staring into the middle distance?

If you’re interested in becoming a better listener so that you can model the behaviors you want your students to learn, see “Active Listening: How to Hear What People Are Really Saying” at MindTools.

Sometimes Talking Is Good

ReadingthuRsday-R2We are in the process of talking to our students about the strategies they use when they read. We are using the Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies Inventory, which has 30 statements students mark according to their frequency of use. After students mark their inventory, we then talk about the reading strategies they use the most and the ones they use the least. I give all this background to get to the point of discussing one of the reading strategies students do not use a lot, which is “I discuss what I read with others to check my understanding.”confused-reader

Reading and studying are sometimes isolating, so encouraging students to talk about what they are reading with others seems almost too simplistic. However, after reading for class, it sometimes helps students to talk about the reading with someone in the class who is working with the same text and who has the same tasks to complete.

studentstalkI am not talking about long conversations about everything that is read for a class, but spending some time talking to someone to clarify ideas and to clear up any misconceptions can go a long way to helping students remember content. Of course one’s instructor is someone who can clear up misconceptions, but it is sometimes easier to talk to a classmate. Talking a few minutes before class and/or after class with a classmate also helps one feel not so isolated.

I encourage students to use every resource available to help them learn the content for their classes, and sometimes just a small conversation can make a difference.

Does Mistake = Wrong?

Simple questions can lead to complex discussions. Recently, an instructor at another school asked about effectively setting up a new course in an online learning platform. He wondered whether or not to use the program’s default settings for reducing credit for correctly answering questions in homework assignments only after opening a “hint.” Just a simple, honest question, right?

pay-attention-in-class_7-ways-to-improve-your-grades-in-schoolNot so much. Several colleagues weighed in with their opinions, yielding plenty of fodder for thought. It seemed to me that the heart of the matter was this question: How do we view mistakes in the learning process? And, for us pleasureinlearning thinkers, a further question might be: How do we leverage students’ inevitable errors (and our own!) to make learning more pleasurable and consequently more effective.

First, it is clear that no one derives joy from a bunch of red marks on a paper. (Unless, of course, you are a sadistic instructor who enjoys making those red marks, in which case we beg you to act for the common good and resign immediately.) I have never heard a student say, “Oh, good!  I missed this question and you caught it!  Thanks so much for letting me know!” And changing the marks to purple or green doesn’t seem to help much—I’ve tried it.walking

Next, normal human development suggests that we don’t get much right on the first try. This includes the important stuff, like pulling up to a standing position, walking across the floor, saying our first words, writing our own names, riding a bike, cooking a meal, falling in love, or starting an I.V. Our first efforts are not usually our best.

And yet we persevere. We learn to walk and talk and cook and love and some of us can start I.Vs. There’s something in us that wants to keep trying unless someone has punished us for the effort. So what do we enjoy? Why do we keep trying?

Because maybe, just maybe, this time we’ll get it right. And that feels so good. Remember the first time the bike took off with you on the seat and didn’t fall over? Grand, simply grand. And why do people stay up long after sensible bedtimes trying to defeat the next level of Candy Crush? Because the challenge seems achievable.

mistakes-learn-from-themSo maybe we should deliberately, thoughtfully, intentionally embrace mistakes as part of the learning process. We can view them, and help our students to view them, as necessary and valuable steps on the path to getting it right. This captures it perfectly:

“If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means “first Attempt In Learning”
– End is not the end, if fact E.N.D. means “Effort Never Dies”
– If you get No as an answer, remember N.O. means “Next Opportunity”.
So Let’s be positive. ”               —–Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam



It would Be Easier to Just Do It Myself

Brian picI can still remember the scolding, vexed tone of “It would be easier just to do it myself!” when I had done a chore too little, too sloppily, or too hit and miss. There is an old method of teaching that goes, “I’ll do it once to demonstrate it for you, I’ll do it once with you, and then I’ll watch you do it once without help.”

The student needs to be watching because attentiveness is not automatic from birth. It is a muscle, and muscles require developing. Little did I know how frustrated my mother was when she was doing a chore demo and I wasn’t observing her every step. Then when she would help me, the tendency was to let her overdo as I underdid. When it was my turn to perform the task solo, I flopped—followed by reprimand and a repeat of the three steps.self-editing-typos

Even the gentlest soul teaching a task will find the experience more complex than, “Monkey see, monkey do.” The basics of any college course prove this. It would seem as easy as, “Here is the principle, here is how you do this, so make yours look like this.”

SODOTOBookSMWith one English class, after spending substantial time on basic punctuation errors, I followed up in several assignments by highlighting draft work errors, even identifying the applicable rule. Several amiable students loved this, and before long I realized that I had become their editor. It was a shock when I quit. Not meaning to be coldhearted, I encouraged them to decide on an editing plan that combined their own first efforts, feedback from reliable others—and finally me, a little bit.
I had started feeling, “I might as well just do it myself,” meaning that I might as well just edit their drafts for them. Nobody learns like that, and editing student drafts would rank high on the list of tedious, exhausting jobs. It’s good to like one’s students, but not that much. It doesn’t help them anyway.

Since they are not my children, I can’t fuss at them like my mother fussed at me, or even my indomitable grandmother, in whose house I was raised from age twelve. Now there was a titan. teaching_by_example1She had a heart of all warmth but a warrior side that we didn’t challenge. However, with students, a little weaning is in order—a lot actually.
There’s a time when others won’t do more until we do less. It’s good to recognize that moment.