Some Thoughts on Teaching

The longer I have taught, the more I agree with the sentiments of Socrates, that it is impossible to truly teach. If by teaching, one means the direct transference of knowledge from one person to another, it is an endeavor that is at best fruitless.

Knowledge cannot be transferred for two reasons. First, true learning comes from the inside. It must occur within the minds of the students themselves, as they gradually learn to make connections and wield theories in appropriate contexts, driven not just by extrinsic incentives but, more importantly, by curiosity. Second, true learning does not occur by plain duplication. If students memorize the definition of what a chair is, it does not allow them to understand the concept of the chair right away. Instead, to truly learn what a chair is, they have to see a thousand chairs in different shapes and forms, touch them, and then sit on them. The reasoning appears obvious for a chair example, but it works the same for all subjects. Direct transference of knowledge through memorization of facts and definitions may work well in the short term for exams, but only true learning benefits students for their whole lives.

Guiding true learning versus transferring knowledge is like training a chef versus a cook. A chef knows all the taste profiles of various ingredients, how to balance tastes, can improvise, can invent, can explain why they make the decisions they make. A cook follows recipes and orders, doesn’t understand the reason behind them, can under familiar circumstances produce good results, but if things change would be at a loss. A chef can always create no matter what situation they are in, while with powerful search engines and advancements in robotics and AI, a cook can be easily replaced.

It is of educators’ job to promote the chef-way of learning among students, although this is not nearly as easy as it seems. A common mistake is to interpret good test results as being good results for learning. To illustrate the difference, there is a thought experiment in computer science called the Chinese Room I start the school year with. In the experiment, a monolingual English speaker is placed in a room full of Chinese and English translation guidelines, Chinese writing is then slipped under his door to translate. Theoretically, with the help of the instructions, the English speaker would make the Chinese person believe him as a native Chinese speaker, while only algorithmically following instructions with no real understanding of the language. In the same way, it is possible on many assessments for students to get do well following simple memorized heuristics with close to zero actual understanding.

So what recipe have I found to try to make my students more like chefs than cooks? A combination of novelty, difficulty, iteration, and feedback.

Can you feel your teeth? Research shows that humans actively tune out things that remain the same for too long, which is the exact reason why you didn’t feel your teeth until it was brought up. We ignore things that don’t change, things that are boring to us, so a class design needs to have frequent novelty to keep the students engaged and intrinsically curious.

From novelty, difficulty naturally stems, but it is also essential in order to change the way students approach learning. Students are like water–they tend to follow whatever path that has the least resistance. In a game, you can build all the fancy systems you want, but players will never realize any of them if simple, familiar strategies can lead to success. At a school, if students can easily pass all tests with their strategy of memorization, most of them will just keep repeating it, no matter how hard you say “understanding is important.” It is not up to what educators say that change students’ behaviors, but to what methods of evaluation are designed. To encourage real understanding, educators need to create assessments that are difficult for students who use the default study mode. Only when students feel enough resistance using their old method, they may switch to a new one.

Difficulties, however, can be frustrating. In fact, the transition from old to the new way of learning is often tough for my students, and it is very tempting just to give up. One key to helping them is to let them understand that you do not wish to torture them arbitrarily, but instead, want them to improve and to reach their best potential. The best way of doing this is to care for the students genuinely, and your attitude will show through your actions. Another key is to provide enough resources for your students. This often means making yourself available to students, there is no short cut, training chefs is hard work for both the educator and the students. Despite the hardship of the process, I have found that any of those who try can become successful, and they almost universally look back at the experience as positive and transformative. Former students who visit me years later consistently surprise me with the degree to which they still understand.

Not just difficult, learning is also a long and slow process. It takes place with direction, trial, and error. No matter it is to learn painting, cooking, writing, coding, or anything else, there are general theories as a guide, but no one can read a book or hear a lecture and become a master. Instead, what is required is many trials and errors, where each time you get a little bit better, even if in the end you cannot explain why. Feedback during this process is critical because otherwise, you won’t learn from practice and just reinforce mistakes.

While a teacher can be a fount of knowledge, an educator can be more like a guide: illuminating the path, encouraging weary travelers to continue on, and perhaps most importantly, keeping them from the shortcuts that seem expedient, but ultimately rob the journey of its usefulness.

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