April 18, 2021

No. 5 — A Tale of Two Teachers

Today I wrote an email to a professor I had 8 years ago to apologize for something I did. 

I was taking two Philosophy classes that semester. The professor of one of them was a recognized academic. He would enter the classroom and dazzle everyone with his lectures. He had a thing with words that it's hard to describe, but it was very easy to follow. His lectures included dates, places, names, times...! It was impossible to not be impressed. Although most students were not precisely engaged, they all talked about how memorable this professor's classes were. His knowledge was an absolute delight.

And then there was this other class. Instead of lectures, the professor gave us each week, a one-page description of our next challenge: Wear objects and costumes alluding to both the French and the English traditions to explain x concept; create a video animation; set up a shadow theater; found a student party, create a government program, and proselytize through a slogan and a jingle; write a newspaper, interview someone... The professor almost never talked. A few students actually knew his name.

To me, the first class was inspiring. The second one was dreadful. The lectures drove me to ask intelligent, profound questions (which made me look smart). The other class's challenges were about silly games and superficial discussions.

The day come when we had to evaluate our professors and give them anonymous feedback. You might now guess the reason for my apology... I praised the first professor and his reflexive and intellectual lectures, and harshly critiqued the second. I'm not sure exactly what I wrote, but I do remember being very vocal and exaggerated about how bad that class was. My feedback was so descriptive, that the following morning the professor read it out-loud in front of the class. He laughed casually, but you could tell the joke was not funny. He was disappointed.

Here's another reason why I hated that second class so much (hate is a strong word, I know): it pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone. To me, the easiest thing in the world was to listen to a lecture and throw a smart question here and there. Risk of failure? Cero. Participation grade? High. Not to mention it was great to my ego. But interviewing a stranger or faking a french accent? Those things are hard (specially for an introvert), and they made me look ridiculous. (This made me think of how in high school it was the opposite: I didn't liked lectures, and enjoyed games. Maybe it has something to do with self-consciousness. I was much more insecure in college...)

At the time, I thought that someone that can stand in front of a room full of students and give an impecable lecture for one and a half hours was a great teacher. It was obvious, right? If this guy could talk about something for that long, without notes or slides, and with some great storytelling, then he must be good. And don't get me wrong. He really was good! But here's the thing... 8 years later while I'm sitting here writing this, I can perfectly remember the articles I wrote for that newspaper. I remember the different approaches between the French and the English liberty traditions. And I remember the differences between the democratic and the liberal ideal and the discussion that came up after founding a party and scouting for votes. 

I don't remember one single thing about the lectures. 

This is the same reason why no one ever learned how to ride a bike by listening to an inspiring talk about it.

Noam Chomsky said: 

You can't expect somebody to become a biologist by giving them access to the Harvard University biology library and saying: 'Just look through it'. That will give them nothing [...] The person who wins the Nobel Prize in biology is not the person who read the most journal articles and took the most notes on them. It's the person who knew what to look for. Cultivating that capacity to seek what's significant, always willing to question whether you're on the right track, that's what education is going to be about..."

I would add: 
  1. To know what to look for you have to ask the right questions
  2. To ask the right questions you have to be genuinely curious 
  3. One way to be genuinely curious is by trying to solve a difficult challenge 
  4. Solving a difficult challenge will make it easier to remember what you learned


A great learning experience prompts students to ACT. And from the facilitator's perspective, that's a lot of work. The first teacher? He would only grade participation and multiple choice quizzes. Now imagine the second. He had to create rubrics for each learning experience, evaluate different criteria, go beyond putting a grade on just the content and giving you feedback on your writing, how persuasively you talked, how creative was your work, etc... It's overwhelming just to read! But it's also worth it. Because only when learners do, they remember.

But as with everything, there's a tradeoff: If you want to give your students the opportunity to act, build, or create, you're going to have to step back. You're going to have to be comfortable, as the facilitator, with not being the person running the show. You're going to have to listen more than what you talk. I'll take it a step even further and say that you'll have to teach with your mouth shut (I'll write more about this soon...)

As a facilitator, you have the obligation to make your students step out of their comfort zones. I know it sounds a little extreme, but I think it's true. Otherwise, you might just be giving them great lectures, but how much of that will they actually remember?

* * *

Update: My professor replied back to my apology email! "I have no words to express what your email made me feel [...] it fills me with hope to know that at the time, the methodology reached its objective: true learning". He and I will meet over coffee soon. I'll keep you posted!

I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – drop me a note.

About Stefy

✨Hi! I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️ drop me a note or DM me on Twitter