Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I feel like I'm off to a really great start to the teaching year, mainly because of having gone through the MEd program over the past six months. First of all, I've been able to put all of my ad hoc theories and gut feelings into viable frameworks from which to build actual practices. And second, I have so many more resources in terms of teaching models and strategies to help students learn, and learn to learn.


I feel like a kid on Christmas morning, going through each toy one by one and figuring out what they do. For example, this morning I attended the Language Exchange Program introduction session. Besides getting signed up to have a language partner this year (getting back into the study habit), I got a chance to analyze some of the teaching methods that May used when she did a quick lesson on basic Chinese.

First lesson was on the importance of pre-testing. This year I know that we have an inordinately large amount of teachers who already have experience in China, and in fact some of them were here specifically to study language. So would giving them a lesson in beginning Chinese be meeting their learning needs? Instead, it would be great to start by finding out what the students actually need to learn and taking it from there. Don't teach redundant knowledge if you don't have to, it's a waste of everybody's time and can be a motivation killer. This point was also driven home to me at the Living in Shanghai/Culture Shock talk yesterday; there are so many facets to Shanghai and to Chinese culture, how do we know that we are hitting the right ones? Wouldn't it be better to have input from the learners themselves?

Second lesson was on the importance of understanding your students and how they understand the same knowledge in different ways. Myself, I'm a person who works well with rules and patterns (see the science connection?) and it would drive me crazy to be taught the way that May was doing the lesson: by repeating words from the pinyin without any explanation of the characters behind them. I am used to learning what each character/phoneme means, finding patterns, and making connections between the different words. On the other hand, I realize that there are people who aren't interested in such a thorough understanding of the backstory, and just want to buy an apple and get the correct change. Finding the analog in my physics class, I would anticipate that I have some students who need to experiment, to prove things for themselves physically, and who love to play with manipulatives. For others, the text or simple memorization is enough; as long as the lesson solves a problem or earns them points, they will be satisfied and motivated. I'm not saying that it's not good to stretch people and ask them to think about learning in new ways, but it's a process that needs to be scaffolded differently for each person.

Finally, context makes a big different in the language you use, as it does in how you talk about or carry out operations in physics. One example May gave was the shortening of 我要一杯啤酒 down to 一杯啤酒 or just 啤酒 in the context of you sitting at a table being listened to by a waiter ready to take your order. Similarly in physics, there are shortcuts to solving certain mathematical or conceptual problems that can be used in the right context, namely after the student has mastered the complete expression and it is implicit that the full operation could be carried out if the situation so demanded.

So it's really fun to play around with these ideas, and it's great to see how they carry over into both my classes and into other areas of education and communication.

I also had a very productive talk with Chris today about our syllabus for Physics 11/12, which we are teaching together. Chris is a very experienced teacher and I had always been a little intimidated talking to him but when we met today I felt so much better equipped and was delighted to find that he shares a lot of the same frustrations that I do and is gung-ho to change around some of the ways we teach and assess our students' learning. It's gearing up to be a very busy and productive year. I'm looking forward to school like I never have before.

Difficult but happy.
From James Kochalka's American Elf: Book Two.


At Aug 21, 2009, 7:07:00 AM, Anonymous Larry Sittig said:

Glad to hear of your enjoyment of/appreciation for your studies and your enthusiasm for the coming year. Hope it's the best ever.


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