I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. – John Steinbeck
As part of my research studies I’m doing an introductory module on teaching. And, like most things that I do for the first time, I’m blown away by just how hard it is to think through and prepare for a lesson. You really have to put aside everything you know and start from the perspective of the learner and rebuild your content so that it makes sense to someone else rather than just yourself.
So how do you go about doing this?
The starting point is understanding the concept of learning outcomes – what you want your student to do after they have experienced the session. Getting the learning outcome down on paper has a focusing effect on your content structure – you keep in the stuff that helps to move your student towards the outcome and get rid of the material that doesn’t.
A useful way to structure your teaching content is to use the pyramid principle described by Barbara Minto in her book of the same name.
At the top of the pyramid is a statement that sets out what you want to get across to the audience or, in the case of a student audience, what you want them to achieve.
For example, if I were to teach you how to build a spreadsheet model the learning outcome or statement might be “In this session you will learn how to model, create and use a spreadsheet model to explore and illuminate a situation of interest.” That might be a bit wordy but it would be a start.
When you have an end result laid out in such a way the main bits almost write themselves. It’s a good idea to limit the first division of your core concept to three to five main points. I like three so with my spreadsheet example the three key steps are drawing an influence model of parameters and results, designing a spreadsheet model and then using the model to explore the situation and gain insights. Model, Build, Use.
The next step down is to create the material you need to explain each of those three concepts – gathering the talking points, examples and activities your student needs to understand the process.
And then it’s time to try it out and see how it works.
The pandemic has probably given all of us a new sense of respect for the work teachers have to do. There’s nothing quite as hard as trying to keep the attention of a six to seven-year old.
I have a number of questions about teaching that I might need to follow up and experiment with over the coming days and months. For example we’re often told not to put too much text into presentations. At the same time if you’re talking about something that the audience finds relevant and interesting then they’ll stay with you for the detail. It’s boring stuff that turns people off.
Another question I have is the difference between teaching a skill and teaching conceptual thinking. It’s the difference between learning calligraphy and learning how to write.
And then there is the question about what you teach – what’s the canon or collection of ideas that make up the body of knowledge that you’re trying to get across?
Even with a very short introduction to teaching I’m starting to realize that there’s much more to it than you might think at first.
And that’s a good thing. It’s hard to teach, and that’s why it’s worth learning how to do.