Skillful teaching

Compiled from lots of classroom experience, this motley list includes examples of what I’ve seen skillful teachers do — and also examples of classroom behavior that seemed unhelpful. It’s subjective. Please comment and disagree with me, because I’m still learning. I attribute the good bits where I can, but leave the less helpful bits anon. I use these abbreviations to attribute quotes:

JZ = Jonathan Zittrain
JP = Jonathan Palfrey
Bordone = Bob Bordone
Freeman = Jody Freeman
BR = Bill Rubinstein
Anghie = Antony Anghie
Hannah Rose = my great friend Hannah Rose Tristram

First, a short list of what skillful teachers tend NOT to do:

  • Don’t say, “I think I understand your question,” and then  answer a student’s question without fully understanding it 
  • Don’t conceive of your role as beginning to reveal to students what you think they ought to believe 
  • Don’t pronounce students’ learning for them. “You’ve all gotten better at ___.”
  • Don’t suggest you’ll let students out early, then not do it
  • When asking questions, don’t use unclear anaphora (“The plaintiffs fails at that, why is that?” “Does that make sense to you?”) 
  • Don’t feel the need to apologize for something students appreciate, like telling a joke or personal story 
  • Don’t mistake abbreviations for words. Spells things out. 
  • Try not to answer a student’s question with material  students aren’t familiar with

Also, I’m skeptical of classes that propose an answer rather than a question: that is, classes whose primary function is for the teacher to propound an argument they have already made in their book.

And now, what I’ve seen skillful teachers do:

  • Inspire their students!
  • Ask students to ask better, more informed questions
  • Use songs to introduce topics. For example, The Flight of the  Concords’ “A Kiss is not a Contract” to raise the issue of what a contract is.
  • Try to understand students’ questions
  •  Connect student contributions to the discussion. “So translate that into what I was talking about” (JP)
  • Challenge students by asking them to do something that combines several elements of what they’ve done before.

◦                      Basic yoga post = A

◦                      Challenge pose 1 = like A +B

◦                      Challenge pose 2 = like A + B + C. Ready, do it!

◦                      Challenge pose 3 = like A + B + C , but pretend  you mean it.

  • Be concise: “The paradigm meaning of “harm” is Pierson v Post” (Adrian Vermeule)
  • Ask students what they’re working on.
  • Give cool examples that are relevant to students’ lives. Like Snoop-dog. “That whole theory complicated by [the movie ]300” (Angie)
  • Assign homework only when there’s a purpose for it
  • Know that what students often look forward to in class is talking with each other and hearing each others’ thoughts
  • Ask students their names, and then call them by name.
  • Explain that some distinctions are fuzzy. “It’s like cookies versus crackers. We know there’s a distinction, but its fuzzy, and nobody really cares.”
  • Have recurrent catch phrases for common themes: “It’s turtles all the way down” (infinite recursion); “You’ve got nothing” (student can’t answer); “The greater includes the lesser” (JZ); teacher: “What do you do? [class]: Take the derivative!” (Ms. Caporello);
  • When someone asks you to help solve thein problem, begin to answer by describing your understanding of the problem: “What I see you doing is….” (Hannah Rose)
  • Encourage students to translate what the teacher is saying into their own words. Indeed, I think that students don’t learn anything unless they translate information into their own words.
  • Speak idiomatically. “Six ways from Sunday” (JZ)
  • State clearly when you disagree. “I see it differently;” “I disagree” (Eric Jepsy)
  • Use as little verbal force as needed. Talk about taking child’s pose and stretching out your arms, not take child’s pose and stretch out your arms  (Hannah Rose). “I’m sorry to be using “must” with you” (Aminu G)
  • Ease anxiety. “In your first year, you think, I won’t pass the class if I don’t know this. And then, it has nothing to do with passing the class, it turns out” (JZ or JP)
  • New learners have no priors (they don’t know what’s more important than what)
  • Respond to odd comments with curiosity: What conception of ____  must you have to say that?
  • Start class after spring break by asking everyone, how was spring break? who went the farthest? (JZ)
  • Show empathy: “Joe’s thinking is…”
  • Ask good questions
  • Have students set their own goals on Day 1, return them to their goals mid-way through and on the the last day, and ask them reflect on what they’ve learned. Let them say what they’ve learned and what they’ve still to work on (Gillient Todd and Krista DeBoer).
  • Write in big letters on the board. Then, go through and explain everything you’ve written. (Freeman)
  • “Does anyone in this group have a different view?”
  • “Let me just give you some context.” (Freeman). Tell your students how you would think about something yourself.
  • “Why is that cynical? Isn’t that just how it works?” (Freeman)
  • When a student can’t come up with an answer, “somebody help” (Freeman)
  • When reading quotes from Powerpoint, omit unimportant words in the quotation without pausing (Freeman)
  • Give students promised breaks, or let them out early (or at least ontime) if they don’t (Anghie)
  • Leave a line on the syllabus for students to fill in their own learning goals and means of evaluation
  • Elucidate new noun phrases: “How many people know what good will is?” (JZ)
  • Encourage non-elicited answers: “Super. Not at all what I was thinking about, but totally right.” (JP_
  • Bring a sheet to class where you can notes open questions or and points that need to be returned to later.
  • Explain a topic in multiple ways. “Let me give you another way of thinking about this…” (BR)
  • Aknowledge their own thoughts: “I’m kind of baffled by this myself” (BR)
  • “Step back for a minute. Ask yourself this: …” (BR)
  • Let students out on time
  • Use consistent language. Don’t call them “minimum mandatories” when everyone else  calls them “mandatory minimums”
  • Ask good questions: How are you? What would you like to do?
  • Tell students when you’ll be doing boring stuff: We have to do 10 minutes of boring stuff
  • Empathize. “Fox experiences [fact] as…”  “Put yourself in the shoe’s of the plaintiff’s lawyer. What will you do now?” (BR)
  • Use theatrical hand gestures, like conductor
  • Set high expectations, both academically and for yourself as a person
    • “Among the requirements of each exercise (along with the prerequisite of personal instinct, will and imagination) are soul-searching, great leaps of faith, research, analysis, physical and digital modeling, computation, photography, welding, video and/or film production, revelations of taste and other acts of justifiable radical behavior” Mark Scogin
  • Be specific: “You got model X577343…” (BR)
  • “Forget the law” (JZ)
  • Name the framing. “Now, you’ve framed this issue as one of compromise…” (Susskind)
  • Ask students to develop personal meanings, definitions, and importances. Why is this material important to you? What does it mean to you?
  • Call out hyperbole: “No more demoralizing practice? I can think of some…” (BR)
  • Ask students also on pre-test – why do you want to take this class? Why did you think this material will be important to you? What would you like to do with it? Ask them to sketch themselves (Karen Brennan)
  • Call students by their name
  • Write a nice syllabus

◦                      Include a cartoon

◦                      Tell students the questions you expect them to have grappled with by the end of the course

◦                      Give students the option to choose among multiple forms of assessment: write a paper and deliver a presentation OR take a test OR option 3 – something else with approval

◦                      Allow students to work in groups or teams

◦                      Explain what the course is about!

  • Avoid awkward pauses. When you’re done answering a question, call on the next person
  • Teach from the board: have stuff up on the board the whole class, and USE it
  • Assume that if you haven’t written something on the board, it’s not in students’ notes, unless you’ve told them to put it there. Therefore, label your diagrams so students know what they’re about
  • If you modify a diagram too much so it’s no longer recognizable, draw a new on
  • Draw different kinds of diagrams (trees, time-lines, pictures)
  • Summarize what’s been discussed taught, so students will remember key points: The 2 big points today are…If you remember nothing else from today’s lecture, it is…Underline this in your notes. Star it. Highlight it. Whatever it takes… (BR)
  • Repeat questions:

◦                      Why else? Why else?

◦                      Where? Where? Where?

  • Surprise students occasionally. Stand on a chair.
  •  Tell stories.  “Do you know the story of the 3 little pigs? There’s the wooden house, and the straw house, and…(Triantis).
  • Be consistently metaphorical. “You must fish for plausible fish” (BR)
  • “My feeling about teaching discovery in a classroom is a little like teaching sex in a classroom” (BR)
  • Acknowledge changes in pace. “I need to push you forward very fast”
  • Be abundantly clear. “In ordinary English, options and alternatives sound like synonyms. As terms of art, they actually mean different things.” (Bordone)
  • Don’t assign more work for a class than you can get through in a day
  • Find out in advance when students are stressed or have major projects due — like big papers. Then acknowledge that they have major projects due, and to the extent you can, give them a little less work.
  • Reorganize the room during class; have students stand up and move. Multiple times. “Get up and…
  • Explain why material is relevant to students
  • Emphasize important points by lowering voice or talking more slowly
  • Keep larger group engaged even as you’re working with smaller group

◦                      “Mark, and then we’ll move onto you, Joel”

◦                      “I’m talking with everyone, not just you three”

  • Tell students their points are more important than they think they are (if that is true)
  • Maintain energy via medleys: Jump immediately from one thing to the next without flagging
  • Tell students that “You don’t want to know” when they ask what the AMPA in AMPA receptor stands for (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid receptor) (Amy Arnsten)
  • Draw students’ attention. “Watch this.” “Make sure you understand this.” “If there’s one thing you should take from this class, it’s…”
  • Show new material twice. The first time for students to learn it, the second time to give students feedback on their performance of it. (Patty Cuyler)
  • In music, teach multiple parts at once. “If you know your part, sing it” (Patty Cuyler, Mollie Stone)

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