THE TRANSFORMED TEACHER – Justifying just makes life easier – We Learn Together Blog

THE TRANSFORMED TEACHER – Justifying just makes life easier

The silent inquisition.

My 2-year-old is an inquisitive tyke. Why can’t I pick my nose? Why can’t I pick my sister’s nose? Why are you yelling at me for picking the dog’s nose? WHY, WHY, WHY? All. Day. Long.

At least he asks me for explanations. Apparently muteness, possibly with an aura of sullenness or the occasional withering glare, develops in the teen years.

Students in my class represent a strange hybrid of inquisitive toddlers and taciturn teens. When I introduce assignments or activities, the skepticism is almost tangible. They may well have loads of questions, but they rarely ask me any.

I Do Not Think by George Hodan CC0 licenseIf I’d mastered my 6-week video course in telepathy (blast you, seductive infomercials!), I’d probably hear a litany of, “Why are you teaching me this? Why should I do that? https://economics.illinois.edu/ Why do I need to learn this?”

And why shouldn’t they wonder? After all, asking questions is at the heart of higher education. Plus, everyone wants to get their money’s worth.

‘Because I said so’ is a No-No.

When my children bombard me with questions, I have a sure-fire response.

Kid:  “Why do I have to wear this stupid hat?”

Me:  “Because I said so.” 1

Kid:  “Why do I have to wear these stupid pants?”

Me:  “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”

And so on ad infinitum.

1 Caveat – I never actually tell my kids ‘because I said so.’ It’s just an example for this blog. Really. Okay! Maybe I’ve said it once or twice. But that’s it! Trust me.

But when it comes to the classroom, my ‘infallible’ technique is definitely NOT appropriate.

My logic is irrefutable.

Believe it or not, I have legitimate, logical, justifications for everything I do in my class. I have answers to their questions about why I do what I do. I just never communicate them to my students. I HAVE my reasons, surely that’s good enough. Right?

Well…

In the absence of information, I’ve found that discontent festers and assumptions flourish.

Students think, “This is a waste of my time. Clearly, the teacher…”

A.  Is out of touch with my needs – and reality in general

B.  Is an incompetent, self-serving windbag

C.  Is a sadist intent on torturing me with useless rubbish

D.  All of the above

In the absence of information, I’ve found that discontent festers and assumptions flourish.

News flash – you run into problems when students don’t understand, 1) why they are doing something, 2) how it will benefit them, 3) how it relates to them, or 4) why the information is valuable.

Trouble in paradise.

What do all those unanswered questions mean for teachers?

RESISTANCE.

In a myriad of ways.

Here’s an example. Someone tells you to sign up for the NDSU Office of Teaching and Learning listserv. What’s the first thing that pops in your mind? What’s in it for me? 2 And if there are no good reasons, how likely are you to Paperfellows plagiarism take action?

2 Spending five seconds typing your name and email is worth it, as you’ll get lots of fantastic info, including teaching tips, news, events, award opportunities, and additional Transformed Teacher blog posts! Yes, I know this is a shameless plug.

Robin Robertson, who was a public school teacher for 10 years and is now at a university, has a nice article about helping students understand the relevance of course content.

She defines relevance as, “the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing,” and indicates that if she explains the relevance of the content, her students will “engage in class and be motivated to work outside of class.”

Unicorns and rainbows!

CC0 LicenseAnswering questions before they’re asked.

So, lay it out for them. Go ahead, be explicit. Communicating your rationale provides answers. It highlights relevance. It dispels assumptions and discontent. It promotes engagement. And it’s in your best interest.

You can discuss your rationale at the beginning of class. During class. At the end of class. Outside of class. Whatever works for you. For written documents, I like to provide a justification right at the top. Dear students, I’m making you do this because ‘blarby-blar-blar.” 3,4

3 Obviously, change blarby-blar-blar to your justification.

4 Bonus points for linking your rationale to the class learning objectives.

Turn explanation into discussion.

Clarifying intent can open the door for discussion, which allows students to voice their perspectives and can even generate new ideas (and improved outcomes – woot, woot)!

Compare this scenario…

Student:  “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?”

Me:  “Because it’s on the test.”

Student:  “Grrrr.” (Sound of paper ripping)

To this one…

Student:  “Why do I have to do this stupid assignment?”

Me:  “Translating scientific journal articles into newspaper info blurbs develops  key communication skills that employers desire.” (Hint – this is the rationale. Resist the urge to follow up with, “And it’s a requirement clearly laid out on the syllabus.”)

Student:  “But newspapers are so old-school.”

Me:  “Hmmm….what else could we do?”

Student:  “Hmmm…what about translating the journal article into an infographic?”

Me:  “Perfect!”

You get the idea.

Even as we daydream about reading our students’ minds, we forget that they can’t read ours.

Remove your blinders.

Articulating your reasoning to your students can also help you evaluate your class. It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot, especially if you’ve been doing the same thing for awhile and you invested a lot of effort initially. But…things change. Is that content really indispensable? Is that activity really valuable? Or is it time for a switch-a-roo?

So, the bottom line is – we’re not there yet with telepathy (I’m returning my video course for a partial refund). The Vulcan mind-meld* is fiction. And even as we daydream about reading our students’ minds, we forget that they can’t read ours.

But there’s an easy solution. It’s called COMMUNICATION. Share your reasoning and answer those unspoken questions. It’s time well spent.

Chin up!

The Transformed Teacher

The Transformed Teacher is a faculty member who took a bold step out from behind highly detailed lecture notes and a gigantic podium into the teaching-verse, which is a magical place filled with helpful tips, tools, and teachers.

As I learn more about teaching, I find I’m significantly better than I was before, and a lot less neurotic. In fact, sometimes teaching is downright fun. Imagine that.

* Vulcan mind-meld. From STAR TREKTM, Copyright CBS Studios Inc.

Check out my previous posts:

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Changing educational pain to pleasure.

Submit a pedagogical question or comment to the Office of Teaching and Learning (ndsu.otl@ndsu.edu) for answers in an upcoming blog post.