Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?

Edward Edmonds is an histologist at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, New York. He has been an histologist since 2002. Previously he worked at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, the Ehrling Bergquist Hospital Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now Joint Pathology Center), Washington D.C.

Recently he left an interesting comment on this blog: Continue reading “Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?”

“Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching

At a recent dinner, Steve Hansen, a friend of mine, said the difference between his current teaching and earlier teaching is “night and day,” partly due to this blog. I asked him to elaborate.

ROBERTS What is your teaching situation?

HANSEN I’ve been teaching at Peking University [in Beijing] in the Guanghua MBA program for the last two years. I teach courses in innovation (big company Clayton Christensen sort of stuff), entrepreneurship, and social responsibility/social enterprise. The classes usually consist of 30-50 students from all over the world. Continue reading ““Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching”

Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now

Stephen Hsu mentioned the documentary At Berkeley. In response, someone who had graduated from Berkeley long ago and recently returned commented:

One thing hasn’t changed much though, most professors still hate, and with studied contempt, having anything to do with undergraduates.

My mom was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I asked her what she thought of this comment. She didn’t agree, but she didn’t exactly disagree: Continue reading “Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now”

Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)

Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:

I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: Continue reading “Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)”

How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

At Tsinghua this semester I am teaching academic writing. Almost all the students are seniors and almost all of them are applying to graduate school, so I spent several weeks on how to write a personal statement. Each student wrote a draft. I read each draft and made suggestions in one-on-one meetings. The students wrote down my suggestion, and these summaries were compiled into the following guide. Continue reading “How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose”

A High School Teacher Learns About Teaching

While reading a blog post about teaching high school math, this caught my attention:

I tend to stay pretty focused on teaching; rarely do I give A Talk. Today . . . I made an exception.

[teacher] “What is it you think I want?”

[student] “You want me to shut up.” . . .

[teacher] “Why?”

[student] “Because it’s your job!”

[teacher] “Because I want everyone to pass this class.”

The class’s sudden silence [made me realize] that my remark had [had] an impact. . . .

I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. [emphasis added. To be sure, this is an overstatement — the truth is teacher/student compromise — but you get the point.] The kids were shocked into silence [because] they realized that my most heartfelt goal was to pass everyone in the class. I learned a key lesson I still use every time I meet a new class [–] make it clear I want to help them achieve their goals, which usually involve surviving the class.

I was unclear what the “key lesson” was so — I have edited the quote to make it clearer — so I asked the teacher blogger, who replied

The key lesson is explicitly state that I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. My students’s awareness that I want to give them value as they define it is essential to creating the classroom environment I want.

When I began working full time as a public school teacher [after years doing test prep], I had much tougher kids [than in test prep], and my classes were not as comfortable as I was used to. It was the emptiness or worse, hostility, I got from enough of the students that bothered me. I enjoyed teaching. But I felt something missing around the edges that I’d always felt–expected–from my classrooms, and I couldn’t even really spell out what was lacking—not gone, just not universal. I didn’t know why.

So in that moment [when I told my students that my goal was to help them reach their goals] I realized that one of my greatest teaching strengths was completely under the radar [= not noticed] not only to the toughest of my public school students, but to *me*. Many of my toughest public school students, the ones that had tracking bracelets or a long history of suspensions or just three years of repeated failures—hell, not only didn’t they realize that I wanted them to achieve their academic goals, they didn’t realize they HAD academic goals, since no one had ever told them that just “passing the class” was an allowable goal. I’d never realized how essential that understanding was to the rapport and engagement I had with kids until I experienced teaching without it.

I’ve only rarely experienced that alienation or hostility since [I learned to be explicit about my priorities]. I still have to be tough and snarl and yell. But now my public school classes give me the same sense of affinity, of understanding, that my test-prep classes did.

All or almost all teachers want their kids to do well. But teachers usually define “doing well” by their own ruler, and set their goals higher than is realistic–and so are often disappointed. I think most people [including high school teachers] don’t understand the degree to which high school students feel their choices in school are completely out of their control. They can’t choose most classes, they are “helped” by giving them more of the classes they hate (double math periods for strugglers).

This supports my view that teaching is much easier when you try to help students reach their goals than when you try to get them to reach your goals. Few teachers I know have figured this out — at best, they get to different students learn differently and stop. I think it’s the beginning of wisdom about teaching. I eventually found, after years of experimentation, that (a) my students’s goals overlapped mine well enough to be acceptable to onlookers and (b) their innate desire to reach those goals was strong enough that there was no need to grade them.

Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 1 of 2)

This semester at Tsinghua — which begins this week — I am going to teach Academic Writing in English. The class is in the Psychology Department. It hasn’t met yet; I suppose all of my students will be psychology majors. In this post I am describe my plan for teaching it; future posts will describe what actually happened.

Last year I taught a class called Frontiers of Psychology. I discovered that I could teach the class without grading. I never gave grades (nor tests), yet the students did lots of work (the assignment completion rate was about 99.9%) and apparently learned a lot. Behind my removal of grading was my belief that long ago people learned everything without grading. Maybe I can use those ancient sources of motivation, rather than fear of a bad grade or desire for a good grade. The details of the course centered on three principles: 1. Customization. As much as possible, I tried to allow each student to learn what they wanted to learn. For example, they had a very wide choice of final project. 2. Doing. “The best way to learn is to do” (Paul Halmos) — so students did as much as possible. For example, they did experiments. 3. Telling. Students told the rest of the class about what they had read or done. I gave plenty of feedback but it was always spoken. For example, after each class presentation I pointed out something I liked and something that could have been better.

It was like the discovery of anesthesia. All of sudden, no pain. No difficult grading decisions. No written comments (explaining the grades), which I wondered if the recipient would understand. The class was a pure pleasure to teach. For the students, no longer did they need to worry about getting a bad (or less than perfect) grade.

Can I repeat this with a much different class? At the same time I taught Frontiers of Psychology, I also taught Academic Writing in English for the first time. It was pass/fail, so I didn’t grade there, either, but I wasn’t happy with how it went. (I didn’t want to teach it again . . . but, a month ago, I learned I am teaching it again.) This time I am going to take what I learned from my Frontiers of Psychology experience and try to create a better class.

In the next post I will describe my overall plan. Throughout the semester I will post about how well my plan is working. Supposedly “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” but my Frontiers of Psychology plan worked fine. I didn’t change it at all. Maybe my Academic Writing plan will work, maybe it won’t.

Movie directing and teaching.




Tsinghua Graduation Memento Statement

The first class of Tsinghua psychology majors in a half-century is graduating in a few days. (The Tsinghua psychology department was closed in the 1950s — Soviet-style university reorganization — and reopened in 2008.) The seniors asked their professors for statements to be included in a memento book. My contribution:

I remember our first day of class (Frontiers of Psychology). It was my first time teaching in China. It was on a Monday, maybe it was your first class at Tsinghua. Some things surprised me. Moving from students in the front row to students in the back, English ability got worse. Each student said their name. When one student said her Chinese name, everyone laughed. I still do not understand this. This had never happened in my American classes. A student had her picture taken with me. This too never happened in America. There were two graduate students in the class. Both of them volunteered to be teaching assistants. In America, no graduate students attended my undergraduate classes, and you need to pay them a lot of money to be teaching assistants. (At Tsinghua, that was the only time graduate students came to my class.) The graduate student who became my teaching assistant told you, “Don’t say My English is poor. Say My English is on the way.” I can tell you now I disagree. It is confusing to say My English is on the way. There is nothing wrong with saying My English is poor. I say 我的汉语不很好 all the time. We were all so new that we weren’t sure when class ended! That was the first thing you made me learn: The length of a class period. I enjoyed having dinner with you. You were less afraid of me than my Berkeley students. I especially remember dinner with 徐胜眉, who told me the Chinese side of the debate about the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Most people in America, including professors like me, had no idea there is another side. I had had a big gap in my knowledge and hadn’t even realized it. The most important thing I learned from you was how to teach better. The homework you did was very good but I was puzzled how to grade it. From talking with you at dinner and listening to you in class, I could tell that all of you were excellent students. It did not seem like a good idea to make it difficult to get the highest grade, but what was the alternative? This was the puzzle that you pushed me to solve. Eventually I changed how I teach quite a bit, as you may know from talking to students from last year’s Frontiers of Psychology. Thank you for that, and may you teach your future teachers as well as you taught me.

Because my students were so good, they made me see the deficiencies in usual teaching methods especially clearly. It really did seem idiotic to take perfectly good work and carefully divide it into piles of best, good, and less good (and give each pile a different grade). Surely there were better uses of my time than making such distinctions and better uses of their time and mental energy than trying to do exactly what I wanted.

When I visited Berkeley to be considered for an assistant professor job, one of the interviews was with graduate students. One of them asked, “Which do you like better, teaching or research?” “Research,” I said. They laughed. All Berkeley professors prefer research, but you’re supposed to say you like them equally. I was unaware of this. I did like research more, and still do, which is why I am surprised that I talk about teaching so much. I told a friend at lunch recently that it was weird how much I talk about my teaching ideas.

What I Learned From My Writing Class

Last semester I taught Academic Writing to Tsinghua undergraduates (psychology majors). Two earlier posts (here and here) summarized what they learned. This post is about what I learned.

When I was an undergraduate, I hated the writing assignments I was given, most of them in English classes. I would have to become nauseous with fear before beginning them. I had nothing to say. When I became a professor and had something to say, everything changed. Writing was easy. This is why — in spite of believing the best way to learn is to do — I gave my students only one actual writing assignment: write a personal statement, which they had to do for graduate school applications. On the last day of class, I asked them: If I had assigned you to write something, what would you have written? Answers varied from diary entries to a literature review about nuclear panic. Then I asked them if they would have preferred a class like that. Half said yes, half said no. If I teach the class again, I would make it an option: do the regular homework assignments, or write and revise something you want to write.

What Happens If I Stop Grading?

I believe two things about teaching:

1. The best way to learn is to do. From an article by Paul Halmos about teaching math. I began self-experimentation to learn how to do experiments.

2. Everyone’s different. My theory of human evolution says we changed in many ways to facilitate trading. (For example, language began as advertising.)  The more diverse the expertise within a group, the more members of the group can benefit from trade. Following this logic, mechanisms evolved to increase diversity of expertise among people living in the same place with the same genes.  (For example, a mechanism that causes procrastination.) The theory implies that there is something inside every student that pushes them toward expertise — they want to learn — but they are being pushed in many different directions — what they want to learn varies greatly.  If you accommodate the latter (diversity in what students want to learn), you can take advantage of the former (an inner drive to learn).

The novelty is #2 — the idea that #2 is relevant to teaching. Human nature: People who are the same want to be different. Formal education: People who are different should be the same.  At Berkeley, most professors appeared to have little idea of the diversity of their students. (At least I didn’t, until I gave assignments that revealed it.) Almost all classes treated all students in a class the same: same lectures, same assignments, same tests, same grading scheme. I heard dozens of talks about how to teach. Supporting or encouraging individuality never came up. Now and then I told other professors these ideas — at a party, for example. “Everyone’s different, but our classes treat everyone the same,” I’d say. No one agreed. It was a new and apparently distasteful idea. Too much work was one response.

Continue reading “What Happens If I Stop Grading?”