Teaching can be really scary. For new teachers or those without exceptionally strong backgrounds in their subject, it can be even more daunting. Teachers in these situations are usually relieved when one of their students gets an answer right—so much so that they potentially miss out on one of the biggest learning opportunities for their students: discussing what makes a given answer right or wrong.
I know from experience that it is all too easy to settle for students getting the right answer. When I first taught human physiology labs in graduate school I was in way over my head. I had very little background in physiology and suddenly I was expected to give a 20-minute lecture, run a lab, make and grade quizzes, and grade lab reports each week. I wasn’t very confident with the material, so when a student raised their hand to answer or ask a question I could only say if they were right or wrong, I couldn’t really go into depth or engage them in a discussion. I didn’t want students to know that I didn’t have a deeper understanding of the subject, so I really focused on what was right instead of explaining why when students were confused. Students who were great at memorizing the material did great, but I couldn’t help the ones who were struggling. Moreover, at the time I didn’t realize that I was being ineffective. I thought I was teaching my students the things they were supposed to learn.
Looking back now I realize how much better I could have been if I was willing to expose my limitations to the students and if I was willing to find a deeper understanding of the material with them. However, I would never have thought of this at the time because all of my teachers always seemed to know everything. Plus, as far as the university was concerned, I was only expected to relay information directly from the book and help my students get the right answers, and I was doing just that. So what was the problem?
At some point near the end of that semester I started to worry that the students were not going to make very good nurses (most of them were taking the class as part of their nursing major) if they couldn’t really understand how the different aspects of physiology connect. I decided that I had better get a better understanding of the material so that I could push my students to dig deeper.
Before I taught, I could have used more training both in content and in how to teach by getting students to problem solve more. However, these failings of my first semester as a TA helped me evaluate myself and work to address some of my problems. I really grew as a teacher because of this process and it ended up being a good thing for me, but I’m not sure that many teachers get the same opportunity.
In retrospect, this early experience as a teacher helped lay the groundwork for the ideas that became Headwater Science Institute. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how important it is to give students the chance to dig deeper in the content, to ask their own questions, and try to use experiments to find answers to their own questions. At HSI we strive to offer students in our programs opportunities to question and evaluate their own ideas and answers. Likewise, our teacher training workshops are designed to show teachers the power of meeting students at the edge of their understanding. Our processes help teachers guide their students to deep learning, not simply prompt them for the right answer.
And that can make all the difference in how effective a teacher is in helping her students learn and understand.
*The idea for this post was inspired by the story of a math teacher on an NPR Ed blog.
Headwaters Science Institute Director working with Katy Yan of the Bentley School.