Monday, April 1, 2013

Our job is to make our students stronger and more capable: Learning to think like a _____________.

As a professor I have come to see my job as making my students more capable and stronger. I am a coach, in that I am trying to figure out what to say to them that will allow them to improve. Much of the time, I have to free them from their prejudices or fears, for example that in my class the goal is to get an A. Actually, for most of these students, their grades do not matter much. But if they learn to write and think better, I will have earned my pay. I do not have a method, or even a set of useful rules. Rather, when confronted with a piece of their written or oral work, or with a problem they present during office hours, I have to say something, usually not too much, that allows them to figure out how to move forward. How not to make some mistakes. How to take what's strong in what they are doing and make it the center of their work.

(You might ask, what about their mastering theories and codified empirical observations? That's very concrete, and not so subject to coaching. I know that I'm quite ignorant of most theories and most facts about the world. So other instructors will have to help them there. What I can do is what I now do--coach them to superior work. Yes, it matters that they understand microeconomics or sociological theories of political movements or... But what I can do is not so common, and it is useful no matter how much they have learned. Other teachers may well be better at doing what I do. But from students' testimony and performance, I gather that what I do is helpful.

(Keep in mind that I was trained as a physicist, and you must learn a fairly canonical set of ideas and methods and ways of thinking, whatever you want to do. Maxwell's equations, quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, ways of thinking of atoms, solids and of particle collisions, and the legacies of Newton, Lagrange, and Hamilton. You've got to solve homework problems, so that you pass the course and the exams. Still, in the end, what I learned from my teachers was how to think like a physicist.)

Many of my students are experienced professionals, in their 30s-50s. They've done real jobs, demanding leadership and skill, political finesse, and even deep knowledge. However, it seems that once they enter the university, they forget their strengths, or perhaps their strengths and what we demand are very different.

I'm not worried that I have nothing to teach them. There is a vast scholarly literature and textbooks that will help them, since they do what they do often without the benefit of what we know about their work--leading, analyzing, problem solving. Often, there are analogies with other work, which make their work seem more understandable to them. It is never a matter of being a genius, whatever that is. Rather, here we have people with rich experience sets, yet they face problems in their work that are resistant to their talents and skills. In part, they need to recognize how their strengths apply. In part, they need to understand how what others have mastered and systematically organized and studied, may well be useful for them.

So, for example, anyone who works in a bureaucracy has prepared memoranda for their boss. They know how to write such so that the boss "gets it." They know that they cannot leave the best part for last, and if they are lucky, they will have figured out how to get to the point by line two or three of the memo. In the intelligence community, they say Bottom Line Up Front: BLUF. I want much the same, maybe even in love letters, but surely in their work.

In their work they know how to decompose a big problem into subproblems, and they should be able to do so with school work and essays.

In effect, we are making our students into their own teachers.

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