education, psychology

Effective Teaching

Originally composed May 1, 2019.

I have taught many people over the years, both old and young. Teaching ability seems to come naturally to me. I love the truth and want to convey it, thus teaching can often be a great joy. I prefer tutoring one-on-one over teaching a class for a number of reasons, the least of which is that I prefer intimate settings so that my brain can focus on joust one individual, which is easier to handle than more than one individual. When my brain can focus, I can provide the best teaching I have to offer.

Another reason tutoring is preferred is that it is better for the student. First, a student sees that attention is on them and therefore they are more willing to ask questions, which in turn facilitates learning. When attention is on their needs, they feel more comfortable expressing them. Furthermore, they don’t have the fear of being embarrassed in front of their peers. Such fear can keep them silent, leaving them with unanswered questions and forcing the student to find answers for these questions in other perhaps less effective or less accurate ways.

Second, by focusing on a single student, instruction can be tailored to the unique needs and mentality of that student. Every person is unique, and each one learns in his or her own ways. Some people learn best by reading, some by seeing examples, some by trying things out, some by listening to explanations, some by identifying raw facts, some by poetry, and some by combinations of the aforementioned.

To effectively teach a person, you must first recognize that “You cannot teach someone anything; you can only help them discover it within their self” (paraphrase of Galileo’s statement) [1] You must try out different methods and various explanations and analogies until finally something starts to “click” (make sense to them). Continue to try out new things until an effective approach has been found. It is only effective when the student is enjoying learning because then they have finally found the way their brain wants to operate. At the same time, abandon all ineffective methods, especially those that lead to strife and conflict. Everyone wants to learn. Everyone has immense curiosity, one that cannot be satisfied by all the books in the world. If a person doesn’t want to learn something, it isn’t because learning is boring or study a perceived evil but because (1) they see/perceive no relevance of the material to their lives, (2) the material has been taught poorly to them such that they believe the material is too difficult to understand, or (3) they are uncomfortable mentally with how they are being taught the material. #2 is often a direct consequence of #3 but sometimes it just comes about by assumption based on past experiences, making it an indirect consequence of #3 even if from a different subject matter. For example, a person may consider zoology as too difficult for them simply because they have struggled in learning other sciences. Thus they assume their ineptitude in “science” extends to zoology.

The biggest problem in education, however, is not the student but the teacher. According to the old adage, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Industry often takes the highly skilled, leaving to education those whose incompetency also makes them ineffective teachers. There are also a number of people who try teaching but turn out to be ineffective. To be clear, it is possible to help someone learn material beyond the knowledge of the teacher if the teacher teaches effectively. The problems with ineffective teachers are that they usually either teach for themselves or teach from someone else’s methodology.

When a teacher teaches for themselves, they use/employ methods and instruction that would work on them. This is fine if the student things the same way but ineffective if the student does not. When the student fails to understand and/or comply, the teacher/instructor has a few choices: (1) try a new approach, (2) move on to other material, (3) appeal to emotion, or (4) try to force.

The first option is only employed by good teachers. The second option leaves the student uneducated. The third option only works on occasion, getting the student to continue but only until they hit the mental block again. The fourth option always leads to conflict and/or resistance and should thus never be used. Even in cases where it appears to work, it only results in fear, not education, and the actual educational material is forgotten, primarily because the brain had no interest in retaining it, only interest in settling fear.

Resorting to force damages the instructor-student relationship and focuses it on conflict. The student becomes occupied with how to avoid the instructor, avoid the lessons, and avoid cooperating with their “enemy”. This is more apparent in some people than others because the love of freedom and fun is more of a motivating factor than the evasion/avoidance of pain. Some students, acting in fear, simply hide homework and lesson plans. Others put it off indefinitely. When any of this happens, there is a negative association with education. Whenever a student encounters struggling, they generally try to avoid it. This is just normal for humans in general, and the fact that it occurs in education should be unsurprising.

When a student is struggling to understand material, they will then want to avoid it in order to avoid the mental anguish. They will put it off, procrastinate, and avoid anything having to do with that specific content or material, and they may have such an aversion that they avoid school in general. When science and history become uninteresting, so do science and history museums. When mathematics is perceived as too difficult, so is accounting, banking, and managing personal finance. Thus, a bad education in terms of frequent struggles will inevitably affect one’s interest in such topics and affect their aptness/aptitude in those areas in the future.

All this is true regardless of the age of the student, provided that the material is new to them or they have had little experience of it in the past that they can remember.

Ineffective teachers tend to resort to instructing in a method and/or at a pace that they feel comfortable. For example, if an instructor likes sequential material each day but the student prefers something random for the sake of newness, the student will find the lesson plan to be droning if the instructor enforces their approach. The student will become bored and disinterested. If the teacher prefers raw facts but the student things poetically, the student will have a hard time committing the material to memory. If the instructor prefers teaching audibly but the student is a kinesthetic learner, the instructor may have a hard time getting the student to sit still and not mess around with things.

When a teacher/instructor perceives that a student is refusing to learn, it often results in demands or pleas from the teacher, depending on their personality and character. Demands can lead to conflict, which then leads to frustration. This is the instructor’s fault, not the student’s, because the student already has the desire for truth and it simply isn’t being effectively appealed to and satisfied. Pleas can get a student to continue, but they don’t solve the underlying problem, and continuing the faulty course will usually lead to a build up of frustration within the student until they become so upset that even please will fail to convince them to continue. The longer the student struggles, the more difficult it becomes to convince them they can learn the material.

Teaching from someone else’s method – whether from advice or by means of a book or by means of some curriculum or system – can have all the same problems for the student as when the teacher teaches for their self, except in this case, even the teacher may not understand the material or the way it is being taught. Some teachers will continue to follow the curriculum merely because they are myopic, they believe in following the method for one silly or illogical reason or another. Perhaps they obey/follow it because it says so and they think it’ll get better as they go along. Perhaps they follow it because they fell comfortable following it stepwise, from cover to cover. In any case, they end up pushing the student along the track without paying attention to the needs of the student.

If you want to be an ineffective teacher, be myopic. If you want to be an effective teacher, be humble.

To be humble is to know you “know nothing”. [2] When we admit to our own lack of understanding and knowledge, we stop believing we know what’s best for the student or that the method we’re using is effective, and then we can begin solving the problem of how to train the student rather than trying to force them along a particular path. When we admit we don’t know how effective our methods are, we can start to consider their shortcomings and begin to improve them, tweak them, and/or stop using them. When we are humble, we open the door to truth and can start to do what’s best for the student instead of ourselves.

[1] By “teaching someone”, I am talking about forcing understanding into someone’s mind. You can only convey information and share with them the logical train of thought that leads to a specific conclusion. You cannot force a person to understand. The reason for this is that each human’s mind is different, and words in language only convey a common idea that is limited. (See my article on the Definition and Usage of Words.) Thus, the only way for a student to truly understand is if their own brain comprehends the components of the idea and fits them together in a way that reaches the same logical conclusion as the teacher trying to explain.

[2] A Socratic statement meaning that human knowledge is limited to an extent we don’t know, perhaps completely, and thus we cannot be certain of anything without the possibility of being wrong – partly or completely. While philosophically, it has incredibly mind-boggling implications, practically, it means we shouldn’t be firm in our own opinion because there might be some practical, realistic possibility that is more true than the beliefs we hold so confidently.

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