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Metaphors for Students

Posted in all posts, education, philosophy, teaching by coleman yee on May 10, 2006

I was in a training session for new teachers, and the trainees were asked to come up with metaphors for students.

The metaphors that a teacher chooses can give insight into their teaching and learning philosophy and approach, and how they deal with students.

"Students are sponges," offered one of the trainees.

"Anyone has any comments on this metaphor?" asked the facilitator.
I spoke up: "I don't like it because it implies that students are sitting there passively absorbing knowledge from the teacher."

"Who chose this metaphor?" asked the facilitator. "Do you have anything to say?"

"I chose 'sponge' because students tend to absorb everything we say or do, even the wrong things, which makes it quite scary sometimes. Also, sometimes you have to squeeze out the old stuff that's already there before you give them the new stuff."

I thought he had a point.

Anyway, someone else chose 'monkey'. 

"Why 'monkey'?" asked the facilitator.

Someone else quipped, "because they are less evolved."

The guy beside me almost spat out his coffee. 

The Story in History

Posted in all posts, education, stories, teaching by coleman yee on May 1, 2006

“How do you make history interesting?”

I posed this question to a lady who was training to become a History teacher.

It turned out that this question had been bothering her as well – she’d always loved history, but she understands that not everyone shares that love. In fact, many students have the perception that history is boring, requiring the memorization of loads of facts and information.

Since I didn’t get far with the question, I asked another:

“Why is history interesting to you?”

“I like to know what happened in the past” was her reply. Not exactly helpful either.

We didn’t have time to converse further, but I was left wondering about the burning question: how to make history interesting to students who aren’t already interested, or even think that history is boring?

Many History teachers make use of films, either documentary (such as WWII or later events where real footage was available), or reconstructions (on events that weren’t captured on film).

Films are definitely helpful, as they add a visual dimension to the historical event (which would otherwise have remained largely textual). One doesn’t have to be a predominantly visual learner to reap the benefits of motion picture.

I have viewed a good number of documentary films, and most of them were highly enjoyable, not to mention informative as well. Recently, however, I viewed a series of war documentaries which had great footage and even computer-generated animation (to illustrate troop movements etc.), but the presentation was not very compelling.

After some thought, I realized why. The difference between the good documentaries and those that weren’t compelling was that the good ones told a story, and not-compelling ones simply presented facts. And the best documentaries – they didn’t just tell a story – they touched your emotions, they developed the characters, they took you through a journey.

Unfortunately, not every historical event is documented or reconstructed on film, and not every historical film is available to the History teacher. What can the History teacher do to make the lesson compelling?

Tell stories.

Something to think about.

Scrabble, Life, and Teaching

Posted in all posts, education, life, philosophy, teaching by coleman yee on March 25, 2006

I used to play quite a bit of Scrabble at one time, but I stopped after I realized how potentially obsessive things could get.

In Scrabble, you have seven tiles which you took from the bag. Ever so often, you end up with really bad tiles, like too many vowels or consonants. In this way, you could say that there’s an element of luck in the game – if you’re lucky, you end up with good tiles; if you’re unlucky, you get stuck with bad tiles.

The best Scrabble players get bad tiles, just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, they can still can play great games even with bad tiles.

Scrabble expert Marlon Hill was teaching a bunch of schoolkids the game, and he was telling them that the philosophy of Scrabble is like the philosophy of life – whatever you get, you just have to make the most out of what you have.

Good teachers have the same philosophy towards teaching the students they have. You don’t always get bright and motivated students, but you do make the most out of your situation, and bring the best out of your students.

May we have more of such teachers.

Feeling Mathematics

Posted in all posts, education, mathematics, teaching by coleman yee on February 25, 2006

I came across this from an interesting blog on teaching Calculus:

There are people who have taken Calculus one or more times and still don’t have a feel for what it is they know. They can solve specific problems in context. They have learned which word problems are like which of the completely solved examples in their text. They know how to curve sketch because the rule says that if in this region the curve has a positive first derivative and a negative second derivative then the curve must look like this.

(The Other Camp)

This reminds me of the time when I was doing Calculus in secondary school. For some reason, I still remember my first Calculus lesson where the teacher explained how differentiation works, and I distinctly remeber not understanding what he meant when he talked about “the limit to zero” this and “the limit to zero” that. Everyone else was equally lost, but no one was about to ask for a clearer explanation — the teacher’s body language made it clear that he was just going through the motions of covering the introduction, and it that wasn’t anything particularly important.

And we were right. Although the class never really understood how Calculus works, it made no apparent difference. We knew how to apply differentiation and integration to standard problems, we knew how to mechanically manipulate the numbers to arrive at the final answer, and that was good enough. In fact, most of the class managed to get top grades for that subject the following year in our GCE ‘O’ level exams. All this while without a feel for Calculus.

A year or so after that, I unearthed from a bookshelf dad’s ancient dust-coated Feynman Lectures on Physics. I liked Physics, so I flipped open one of the books in the series (if the title was Lectures on Calculus, things would have been quite different). The page I looked at was an explanation on how Differentiation works, using a distance-time graph of a car to find out its average and eventually instantaneous velocity at certain times, and how the method of Differentiation could be derived from there (are you still with me?).

I was amazed. It was less than two pages of explanation, but things finally clicked. Now, “limit to zero” made perfect sense, and I could see the elegance of alculus. I feel Calculus.

Unfortunately, countless students have gone through Calculus (and life) never having a feel for it. It’s not just Calculus, but most of Mathematics.

Math, for too many, is not much more than a mechanical manipulation of figures — learning and doing what the computer can do much faster and infinitely more accurately. Is there a problem with math education if our students go through their school careers with such an idea, and having no feel for all but the simplest mathematical operations? Most certainly.
I wonder what could or should be done to improve the situation.

Drowsy Afternoons

Posted in all posts, education by coleman yee on February 22, 2006

It’s now late afternoon, and I’m feeling a little drowsy. Maybe it’s the heavy lunch?

I was just reading Dr William Dement’s article What All Undergraduates Should Know About How Their Sleeping Lives Affect Their Waking Lives:

Each of us has a specific daily sleep requirement. The average sleep requirement for college students is well over eight hours, and the majority of students would fall within the range of this value plus or minus one hour. If this amount is not obtained, a sleep debt is created. All lost sleep accumulates progressively as a larger and larger sleep indebtedness. Furthermore, your sleep debt does not go away or spontaneously decrease. The only way to reduce your individual sleep debt is by obtaining extra sleep over and above your daily requirement.[…]

[T]he size of your sleep debt determines the strength of the tendency or ability to fall asleep. If your sleep debt is zero, sleep is impossible. If your sleep debt is very low, only a small amount of stimulation is required to keep you awake. If your sleep debt is very large, no amount of stimulation can keep you awake.[…]

[T]he things we usually assume cause us to become drowsy or to fall asleep actually do not cause us to become drowsy or to fall asleep. Their true role is to unmask any tendency to fall asleep that is present already. If you believe that boredom, a warm room, or a heavy meal causes sleep, you are completely wrong! If boredom, a warm room, or anything else seems to cause you to feel drowsy, you have a sleep debt and you need to be stimulated in order to stay awake. If you frequently feel sleepy or drowsy in any dull or sedentary situation, you almost certainly have a very large sleep debt.

Unfortunately, many students, particularly those in higher education, tend to go to class with heavy sleep debts. Whether it’s caused by the sheer amount of school work they have to finish, or simply their late-night lifestyle, it’s just something teachers have to live with.

I remember bumping into a classmate on the bus to school years ago when we were still students. He was excited to see me, proceeding to describe to me how he spent the whole night solving a programming problem. As he was speaking, his speech started slurring, and his eyelids started drooping, before he fell completely asleep, mid-sentence! Talk about a heavy sleep debt.

But just because there are students around with very heavy sleep debt does not relieve you the teacher from all responsibility. If a third of your students have their heads resting on the desk and drenching their handouts with drool during your classes, it’s because your lessons are so unstimulating and boring that a minimal amount of sleep debt is enough to send them a-drooling.

Yes, all your students will be carrying some amount of sleep debt, which can get quite heavy by late afternoon. But if you provide enough stimulation, they will be able to stay awake. Sure, there are exceptions–some students may have been up all night working on an assignment, but you’ll recognize them. Just do your part, and don’t take things too personally.