Lessons from eight months of teaching

Published

January 3, 2019

Arien ‐ Sr. Software Engineer

For eight months, I worked as an instructor at a web-development bootcamp. The company that I worked for is a company that welcomes people with little to no programming background, teaches them a very specific stack of technologies, and then helps them to get a job. It involves assessments, and not all students make it to the end. With zero teaching experience to start with, I was bound to learn a lot. Here are the lessons I have learned from eight months of teaching.

1. The curse of knowledge

There’s an exercise called “the clapping game”. A person is asked to clap to the melody of a children’s song. Then they estimate how many people they think were able to guess the song. It turns out that people tend to overestimate the number of people that guessed the song. Explanation: the clapper can hear the song playing in their head while they’re clapping, and have a hard time imagining that other people cannot.

This is a perfect example of the “curse of knowledge”. When you’re explaining something to someone, you can “hear the song” and it seems obvious to you, yet people often won’t understand you straight away. It is extremely humbling to see this happen in front of your eyes. I assume much less about my communication now. I often ask for feedback to make sure my message has come across.

2. I can’t explain how I do most things

When you’re good at something, there is a sense of doing things automatically. Skilled athletes have muscle memory. Skilled workers have a “keen eye” or “sixth sense”. Go ahead and teach that. Some skills are hard to put into words, but teachers need to do that all the time. Your intellectual brain works hard to make a story out of something that your primitive brain does effortlessly.

3. Stupid questions

One of the few weapons to fight against the curse of knowledge is feedback. The best feedback is students asking questions. However, the fear of sounding stupid is very, very real. Sounds familiar? Teaching has taught me that there is an immense value in discarding your ego and asking the dreaded “stupid question”. Usually, students are not alone in their confusion. Even if they are, anxiety doesn’t help. Questions do help.

4. Personal responsibility

I find that children should take more responsibility for their own education. However, that might be easier said than done. What can we expect from students? And what is realistic to expect?

As a teacher, I struggled with these expectations. I have a stake in my students’ learning. But I need them to do the work, I cannot do it for them. However, I can make things easier. How much should I do? How much effort should I put into “making the class fun”? Or should I expect motivated students to be able to learn from “plain” materials? After all, they have to take personal responsibility. This isn’t a lesson with a solution. The value lies in my awareness of this balance.

5. The collateral damage of differentiation

Differentiation is teaching each student at their own level. Which means offering them the right amount of challenge, so they can learn optimally. Utopia! This is good, but there’s a cost.

Where do all the extra teachers come from? Mitosis? There are no extra teachers. So, naturally, there is less teacher-student interaction. Taken to the extreme, students will have to show a lot more “personal responsibility” to have a comparable pace. Some call it “motivation”. A complicating factor is that some students like to be told what to do. They perform worse when given freedom. Extreme differentiation means that some students will struggle.

6. Believing in your students matters!

I have witnessed myself giving up on students. Like a silent observer. Watching myself cutting off a rambling student. There have been cases where I was convinced someone was not going to make it, and I felt like every minute spent explaining something to them was a waste of time. As a result, the student is almost guaranteed not to get the necessary help, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is so hard to fight this. When there are bright students that I’m clearly able to help, my tendency is to spend my energy where it is most effective. I’ve learned to spot this feeling and fight it. If someone doesn’t make the cut, I want it to be fair. Equal opportunity is the goal.

7. Teaching is a great way to learn

In order to “explain how I do things” (see #2), I have to look at ideas from a new perspective. The deep analysis of something you think you know invariably leads to new insights and deeper understanding. It’s made me want to teach things I don’t yet know, just so I have to REALLY learn them myself.

8. Learning goals

Before you write a single word of a tutorial, you have to know what it is you want your audience to learn, right? Common sense? Perhaps. Yet forcing yourself to write down these learning goals first lays bare how vague they actually are. Writing them down forces you to be specific, which makes the goals less ambitious, but precise. After this, you also realize how little a person can (properly) learn in a day.

Another benefit of having a list of learning goals, is that you can use them as tests for your materials. Is every goal addressed? If you want to rewrite (refactor) your materials, you can use the learning goals to verify if you’re still covering the required topics.

9. Assessments are hard

There are many reasons to want to evaluate a student’s progress. As a result, assessments are ubiquitous. Good assessments, not so much. What makes it so hard and what can go wrong?

  • Cheating
  • Unclear questions
  • Ambiguous multiple choice options
  • Weights and calculating the final score
  • One question giving away the answer to another question
  • When is the right time to assess?

This is just a sample. In my opinion, the most effective assessment is a structured conversation. But this has its own drawbacks. Is the student able to communicate their understanding (curse of knowledge)? How many of these structured conversations can you have in a day, and stay sharp? How do you ensure everyone gets the same treatment? How do you keep the questions/structure a secret until you’ve spoken to everyone?

Have I convinced you of the difficulty? Good. What’s the solution? Do your best, while keeping an eye out for exceptions.

10. We are obsessed with intelligence

This is where the rant starts. Intelligence is a thing. Everyone knows it, feels it, and deals with the consequences. Intelligence plays a part in job interviews, school, sports, hobbies, friendships, and intimate relationships. On average and up to a point, the more intelligence, the better you do in these areas. Therefore, to most people, intelligence is desirable. When is it fair to judge someone by their intelligence? Look at that list again. When does it start to feel “wrong”? Hobbies? Friendships? What does it even mean to “judge”?

It’s been shown that we offer more opportunities to beautiful people. Even when beauty does not seem relevant, which doesn’t seem right or fair. In modern life, intelligence seems to be relevant all the time. So, we obsess over it. Use knowledge as a proxy and learn as many facts as we can. We try to prove our intelligence by repeating those facts. We cut people off when they try to explain things to us, lest we seem ignorant. By doing so, we show insecurity about our intelligence. Modern life is a marketplace, and intelligence is valuable currency.

I would like it if intelligence mattered less, because it’s unevenly distributed. Not being born “smart” should not disqualify someone across the board. Potential is being squandered because we focus so much on the extremes. The smartest people don’t automatically make the best employees, the best colleagues, or the best friends. To me, at least, there seems to be no causality. When hiring, we need to relax our intelligence requirements a bit, and broaden our criteria. Even more important, we need the people around us to feel less insecure about their intelligence, because it limits collaboration and personal growth.

I’ve started with myself. I’m slowly detaching my intelligence from my identity. It feels good. Why don't you start as well?

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