Monday, December 15, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell on teaching

There's an essay by Malcolm Gladwell called "Most Likely to Succeed" over at The New Yorker this week. After having read (and listened to) some of his stuff, I always am a little suspicious, because everything seems to end up with the equivalent of "And that's why 2 + 2 really does equal 5!" Since I'm used to literary criticism, though, that doesn't bother me too much, and what he says about teaching does seem to make good sense.

Gladwell makes two major points: (1) for some occupations, you can't tell how good someone is going to be until he or she is actually practicing that occupation; and (2) good teachers have a quality that he calls (after Jacob Kounin) "withitness" and that I've always thought of as watchfulness. What this means is that a good teacher is always aware, as far as possible, of what's going on in the class--not just the activities, but the level of engagement.

It's easy to tell if students are engaged in a class if they're talking, but what if they aren't? Someone once commented after watching me teach, "you watch faces." I don't know if that's good or bad, but watching faces enables me to see if people are paying attention before they completely check out. Of course, no one can do this all the time; if that were true, Planner Girl wouldn't have gotten as far as she did with checking out of the discussion because I'd have noticed it earlier.

I've observed a lot of people's classes over the years, and "withitness," the ability to relate to individual students while keeping the group together as a whole, really stands out as something that keeps students engaged and motivated. Gladwell gives this example:
Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

That's why, I think, teaching takes so much energy and we all talk about how tired we are at the beginning of the semester. If teaching doesn't take a lot out of you, in the immortal words of LOLcats, "Ur doin it wrong."


Professor Zero said...

Well I'm glad someone recognizes this. My father, a very successful professor, insists to this day that one must not put any effort at all into teaching, especially as a woman, because then it is all one will be allowed to do.

The result of this is that I am always terrified when I put any effort into teaching - the police will come and remove tenure - and I feel guilty when I am tired from it, because that means I have put effort into it. I think that if I were a better professional I would just walk in and out of it unscathed. So it's good to know it's OK to get tired from it. I am exhausted from it.

CarlD said...

Yeah, this is totally right, and teaching is no different than any other relationship with humans. If you do it right, it's exhausting. (Goffman called it "face work.") This is why we set up impersonal formal systems - to get things done without burning each other out. Then we forget why we did it, decry the lockstep and impersonality and wish we could go back to doing things more authentically.

Anonymous said...

OK Carl, then you've explained my whole family. They only like formal situations! No wonder I always felt one couldn't be authentic at home and in fact that authenticity was not desirable ... and couldn't get them to be like the other families! It is why I went to Reeducation, I was not sure why the family was so uncomfortable and I thought it must be I who was not comfortable with people! EUREKA!!!!!

undine said...

Professor Z, maybe your father is talking about the pre-class effort? I think the in-class stuff is really tiring, though.

Carl, I hadn't thought of this as a cycle, but you're right. We do something one on one--make a plan to do it more "efficiently"--decry the impersonality--and change it back, as you say.

Professor Zero said...

The pre class effort is creative, though, and it is what makes class itself less tiring. What exhausts me is dealing with people, I am less extroverted than I seem.

I think my father means you should walk in, give your lecture, and take questions, period.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. - I think it's also some random phrase used for undermining people. Anything teaching or service related that goes well MUST HAVE been too much work, even if it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Now I've read a bunch of that Profession. I think:

1. Actually, we don't blame students too much for poor quality. We blame ourselves (as individuals) too much. We have to really be allowed to think about curriculum, and so many people are so locked into certain ideas about it (what? let departments other than English take on some of the writing courses? what? eliminate the unwieldy jump in levels from first to second year foreign langauge? what?) that they don't even know these are ideas - they think they're forces of nature.

2. The Barsky article is my favorite, but I cannot easily act on his advice without having the religious right and the Horowitz people on my case. What he says about why students will not protest is very very very important but it also applies to many faculty members.

3. Those articles on teaching the military and teaching the religious leave something to be desired, they are all too pious and patriotic, and I know whereof I speak, I have as many religious and military students as these people, and I'd be *glad* to teach more military, and more people who are *seriously* (not faux) religious, both groups tend to be reflective people, smart and good students.

4. I should read the MLA report on foreign language teaching, which I never did. Apparently it is quite good.

undine said...

I haven't read _Profession_ yet and sometimes don't, Cero, but will take a look.

Anonymous said...

I am confusing it with your New Yorker piece. Don't ... the NY piece is better. Me, it is Profession I am arguing with, not necessarily a great use of time.