Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Fun of Learning Stuff

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. ~Martin H. Fischer

I’m taking a class about database administration, which may seem as exciting as watching paint dry, but actually I’m enjoying it, for a number of reasons.

First, the location is unbelievable. It’s not someplace exotic (unless one considers Birmingham, Alabama, exotic, in which case I’ve got some swampland in my back yard I’d like to talk to you about), but it’s being held at a local company that has a fabulous facility. It’s not so much the training facilities, which are quite good, as the setting. This company is on top of a mountain. The view from the cafeteria is breathtaking. The facility itself is blended into the rocky landscape, surrounded by trees and immense boulders. I took a walk around the building on a flagstone path that encircles it most of the way and felt like I was out in the forest primeval. I thought Evangeline might come around the other corner at any time.

Second, I wanted to take the course. Over the many years I’ve been getting educated, I’ve probably wanted to take less than half the courses I had to. I realize that to take some of the good stuff, you’ve got to take some unpleasant stuff. For example, if you’re going to read and write intelligently, you’ve got to suffer through vocabulary and grammar classes. It ‘s just nice to get the reward for taking the dull stuff once in a while.

Third, the course is being taught by a good teacher. Now that’s a killer combination for learning. Location, desire, and good instruction doesn’t come together very often.

All of this gets me to thinking about what makes a good teacher. I ought to have some idea, having taught some professional courses in the past and getting good student reviews in the process. But, what success I had was in emulating certain traits of teachers I admired. Somehow, these teachers always got even the troublesome students to at least be less troublesome; sometimes, they even managed to get them interested, which is no mean feat when you consider just how dead-set some people are not to learn anything.

At any rate, for what little it’s worth, here are the traits I think are important to being a great teacher.

Passion and enthusiasm: If the teacher is excited about his subject, some of it will rub off in spite of even the most recalcitrant student’s resistance. I really don’t’ much care for poetry, but I had an English teacher in high school who could make you feel the sense of the verse. He wasn’t a particularly good reader; in fact, his Boston accent (how he ever got to Ohio, I’ll never know) was downright distracting at times. But somehow, he got the message through.

Imagination: Some teachers just have the knack. Whether it’s though a vivid example or a clever project, they make the subject more alive. One of my physics professors in college had a gift for pantomime. To demonstrate potential energy, he pretended to squash an immense spring against the wall. He said releasing the spring would release its kinetic energy, then jumped back as if letting the spring go. Everyone in the room ducked. Believe me, the entire class grasped the difference between potential and kinetic energy.

Expertise (and the willingness to find out): We like to think the teacher knows the subject very, very well. But, what’s even more impressive is the teacher that admits she doesn’t know but promises to find out. What’s even better is when she brings her own new learning back to the class. Too many teachers are forced into teaching subjects which is not in their field, due to shortages or scheduling issues. The good ones do the best they can to get up to speed and keep getting up to speed as the course goes on. The bad ones just read the book and let you founder. What’s worse, the bad ones give bad tests because they don’t understand the material well enough to design intelligent questions.

The worst teacher I ever had was a Library Sciences major who was forced to teach a Microeconomics course. Now, Micro is a tough subject which I had previously taken at another school, so I was familiar with it. She wasn’t, and it showed. Just to make sure, though, she told everyone she didn’t know anything about it and really didn’t want to be teaching it, but they had no one else.

Having failed two of the three criteria, she decided to go for Imagination when she gave her mid-term. I don’t recall how many questions there were, but virtually all of them would qualify as trick questions (supply-and-demand curves with only one point, that sort of thing). Being that I’d had the material before, I could spot the tricks and finished the exam very quickly. The rest of the class went down in flames. Soon after that, I moved to a new job, so I didn’t finish the course, but I always wondered if any of my former classmates ever carried through with some of their threats.

I doubt they did; burning at the stake was never very big in Ohio.

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