Becoming a Better Teacher | Mariappan Jawaharlal | TEDxCPP

Becoming a Better Teacher | Mariappan Jawaharlal | TEDxCPP

November 14, 2019 100 By Ronny Jaskolski


Translator: Zsófia Herczeg
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Twenty-two years ago, I was offered a job as an assistant professor
at a university in the state of Michigan. It was late summer, and I had a few weeks to go
before I start teaching. I was excited and terrified. Excited because I always
wanted to teach and I got the job. Terrified because I was not sure if I had the knowledge, language
and communication skills to teach. I wasn’t too worried about the knowledge, because I know students
didn’t know that material and that they don’t know
that I don’t know the material either. (Laughter) So that was OK. English was my third language, and I was not fluent, and I had an accent on top of that. I still have an accent. So I wasn’t sure if the students
would understand me. If I had a British accent,
I would have kept it. Anyhow, I was also worried
about my language skills and communication skills. See, when I talk about communication
skills with students, I was terrified to be with them
talking about skills that I didn’t have. I was so terrified, I was sitting
that summer at home thinking, “My God, I made a mistake. I should have continued
myself to be an engineer. Why would I quit my job
and become a professor?” I was depressed. I was watching a movie with my daughters, a Disney movie. Suddenly, I had a moment of revelation. I ran into my bathroom,
stood in front of the mirror and said, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, (Laughter) how can I be a better
teacher in the fall?” (Laughter) And I waited. The mirror didn’t answer me. Then I got a phone call
from the department chair who hired me. I understood from him
how the teaching system works. Basically, it works like this. You are a new teacher. Your department chair
or the school principal will give you a piece of paper
called curriculum or syllabus, and it has a list of topics
that you are supposed to cover. And you are expected to cover those topics in a certain amount of time,
such as one semester. That’s it. You don’t have to do anything other
than follow those topics. What is expected from you
is to give quizzes and exams, so it’s harder for the students. How you teach,
how much of a topic you cover, how little you cover,
how fast you cover doesn’t matter. It’s all up to you. That’s how the teaching works. And that is interesting. So I got this syllabus,
and I am ready to go and teach. In traditional teaching, that’s all,
you go and lecture in the classrooms. So I am all ready. I’m going to teach the students, and I prepared in the traditional way. And I prepared hard exams. The exams are hard and unrealistic. In fact, it was so hard and unrealistic, I have no doubt Isaac Newton would have failed
the calculus class in a high school. (Laughter) By the way, Isaac Newton
invented calculus. Can you imagine Isaac Newton
with his long hair sitting in the back row
in somebody’s calculus class, and that teacher is teaching
calculus with PowerPoint. “Isaac, don’t fall asleep. What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know
calculus is a tough subject? Pay attention, otherwise
you’ll fail AP calculus.” That’s what we are doing
to our students today. Isaac Newtons and Galileos
won’t pass our classes anymore. It’s so tough, unrealistic. Anyhow, I go to my class,
I teach my students, and I prepare hard, I work hard. So my lectures come out all right,
my students like me, I get good student evaluation,
and I would have stayed there, but I felt something is missing: something that students are not learning. I mean, they are doing better,
but I don’t feel they are connected; there is some kind of a disconnect. Then I came across
a code by Phyllis Diller, who was a stand-up comedian – you know, we learn from comedians a lot. Her code goes something like this: “In the first 12 months,
we teach our kids to walk and talk, and then we tell them,
‘Sit down and shut up.'” (Laughter) Aha. So our students – I prepare my lectures
and deliver all these lectures, and I’m very excited about it, but the students are not responding,
not learning enough. They are not involved,
they are not engaged. So I realize that there is
something I’ve got to do. So I start out my journey
of figuring out a way to engage students. I came up with a few things, all right? Some of them share them with. The first thing is, “Be original.” Why? Well, I have 23 years of education in four different countries
and three continents, and I have hundreds of teachers, and I found one common thing
among all bad teachers: all bad teachers are boring. It doesn’t matter. They come from different
cultural backgrounds, they have different styles,
but they are all boring. They live in their own world,
they communicate to themselves – in other words, they talk to themselves,
they don’t communicate with the students – and that wasn’t exciting. Then I looked at all the good teachers. I read books about teaching, I listened to great teachers
about teaching. I watched even movies. Then I saw all great teachers that I liked
are very different. They spoke different languages, some of them spoke very loudly,
some of them were soft-spoken, some of them were very humorous,
some of them were serious, some of them were moving around a lot,
and some of them were standing still. In fact, I loved a teacher in Russia who would stand still and talk softly, but he would tell stories that we would be on the edge
of our seats to listen to him. Such an engaging speaker,
but he wasn’t loud, he was standing still. I thought that’s a fantastic way to teach, so I tried that out in class. In 13 or 15 minutes, it was a disaster. (Laughter) Because I am not him! I’ve got to move around,
I’ve got to be loud. So I realized the good thing
about good teaching is you be original, don’t copy anybody else. And that’s easy. That means
all you have to be is, “Be yourself.” So that’s the first lesson I learned:
“Be yourself. Be original.” And then, the second important thing. It occurred to me over a period
of time of my teaching is, “Renounce teaching.” No, I’m not kidding. It sounds silly and ridiculous. Renounce teaching. Why? Because teaching is not learning. Think about it. “Renounce teaching” means you recognize the fact
that teaching is not learning. First, let’s talk about this. Teaching is about teachers;
learning is about students. In traditional teaching, teaching is like teachers giving
a cup of water to the students, and learning is like students
drinking that cup of water. Entirely. That sounds more like a treatment
than learning to me. Now, if that worked, 100% of the knowledge
has been transferred to the student, then everybody would be a student, and that doesn’t work. That means teaching is not a process
of information transfer, like transferring
through a high-speed USB drive. It’s not like we can download something
into our brain very quickly, like in a movie like Matrix,
and learn to fly a helicopter. It’s not. Second, learning occurs
independently of teaching. In fact, learning can occur
independently of teaching – without a teacher. Think about kids walking. Do we go and tell a kid eight months old, “Listen, I am going to tell you
some pointers on how to walk. (Laughter)
Don’t stop, start the step.” No, we don’t do that. Learning occurs without – and that’s true
for all essential life skills, whether walking, talking, eating. They learn by trial
and error, experimenting. We can support them, we can help them, but learning occurs without teaching. The third important part of understanding
why teaching is not learning is your own beliefs. Our personal beliefs
control our actions, right? Religious beliefs or any other beliefs
control our action. If you think you are supposed to teach,
then the focus is on you. So what you are going to do
is to focus on your presentation, on your lecture, on your exams,
on your methods, on your glory. Student learning
doesn’t even make that list. So the idea of teaching
is not helping to learn. So it is very important
that you renounce teaching. It’s in a sense like Alcoholics Anonymous. If you are an alcoholic
and if you want to become sober, what do you do? First, you acknowledge
you are an alcoholic. So first, acknowledge
teaching is not learning. And once you recognize that, you can move on to the next step
of how you can help students to learn. And that would be
getting to their eye level. It’s very easy to understand: we have to get
to the eye level of students. How do you do that?
Well, we do that in our everyday life. Think about it. You have a child. You want
to communicate with the child. You want to tell a story maybe, you want to read a book,
or you want to sing a song. What do you do? You get on your knees
so you can be at their eye level, or you carry them
so you can be at their eye level. That’s how the communication takes place,
not from the podium to the students. So get on to their eye level
in our context means understanding the subject matter
from the students’ perspective. And the students’ perspective
is very simple. Quite often they don’t understand:
“Why am I learning this?” Is there a real meaning behind it,
or is it just to make their life harder? Or what is the real application? Why can’t we be upfront and tell them? So getting to their eye level
is an important next step, all right? And one way to practice that is –
I always practice it these days – is to ensure you can explain
any difficult concept to a 5th grader. Trust me, any concept, whether it’s thermodynamics
or nuclear engineering, can be explained to a 5th grader
in simple terms in a broad way. So if you understand the subject matter,
you can explain it to a fifth grader. Today I practice this. Before I teach my first year,
second year engineering classes, I try these concepts in fifth grade,
eighth grade or high school because I am part of an outreach program. And if you can explain to a fifth grader, that means you are communicating
the concept in simple language without technical jargon. So students, if there are any here, next time if your professor
says something and you don’t understand, ask him to explain it again. If they can’t explain it to you
in a different way or in a simpler way, trust me, they don’t understand
the subject themselves. (Laughter) You are better off leaving them alone (Laughter) and go use Google or Wikipedia. All right? The next important aspect of teaching or learning is to help students make mistakes. Now, this is something well-returned,
researchers have done that. Without making mistakes, you can’t learn, but we don’t let them make mistakes;
we grade them poorly. Here’s my analogy. If you don’t make small mistakes and understand the consequences
in a controlled environment, in your classroom, you are going to make
big blunders in life later. That’s number one. Number two is if you avoid those blunders, then you’re not going to take
any initiative, you’re never going to make
any important decisions in life. And that’s why making mistakes
is so important. To do that, you can keep your classrooms like a basketball
or soccer practice session. You work hard,
you understand your mistakes, you exercise, you fix your mistakes, you develop strategy,
you work with your teammates, so you prepare for a final game. But what is happening in our classrooms is every class session is becoming
like a final game, and that’s stressful, all right? So you have to let them make mistakes. Now, once you can do that, the next most important point
in my approach for teaching or helping students to learn is to completely avoid the term what we call, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” How many times do you hear, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Don’t reinvent the wheel”? This is by far the most
counterproductive statement ever. If you want students to learn,
help them reinvent the wheel. Every student must reinvent
the wheel, in their mind. How can you understand something
without experiencing? If you want to learn to ride a bike,
it’s not a big deal. Everybody rides a bike. But still, balancing the bike
is an individual action. You have got to experience it. Nobody can substitute that for you. You have to create that experience
for your students, all right? So “Reinvent the wheel” means you have to
reinvent Newton’s law in your mind; otherwise, it is just an equation that you memorize
without any understanding. In fact, I have absolutely
no shame in admitting that in first grade
I did not believe the earth is round. Because it didn’t make any sense. How do you know the earth is round? Now you have pictures
in the last 20-30 years from satellites and all that. When I went to school,
I didn’t even have TV. We didn’t know. So I secretly harbored this notion
that the earth is flat, but I would answer, always, “It is round,” because that’s what I was told. And many students are doing this
in engineering and every discipline. They don’t believe, they don’t understand,
but they answer the questions. If you want to change that,
you have to provide them that experience. How do you provide?
One simple way to do that. A simple question: What do you think? This one simple question
I stumbled on once, and I still use it in third grade,
fifth grade, high school, graduate school. I use it successfully. Ask the students, “What do you think?” Any questions. You never answer. Most of the time I did this
because I didn’t know the answer. (Laughter) I know it. I was teaching a third-grade
group of students robotics. This little girl comes to me and says,
“Dr. Jawa, my robot is not working.” I say, “What do you think?” She thinks for a second,
looks at me and says, “Dr. Jawa, I think my wires
are not properly plugged in, connected.” I said, “Okay.” She tries it out. A few minutes later,
“Dr. Jawa, my robot is still not working.” I say, “What do you think?” And she says, “Maybe
my battery is not working.” I said, “Okay.” Now, this is interesting. I thought she’d just
look at the battery level and say it has enough. She looked at it. It had one bar,
two bars. Not enough, I feel. But she says, “Let me check.” And then she grabs another robot, changes the battery and finds
the other robot is working. So she says, “Dr. Jawa,
the battery is fine.” I didn’t even think of that solution,
but she was figuring it out. I was thinking about teaching how to use a multimeter
to a third grader, because she is ready. (Laughter)
She is ready. The point is we went through
these interactions a few times, and she realized there is no problem
with the hardware, so finally it occurred to her,
“Dr. Jawa, it has to be my program.” “Okay.” I didn’t do anything. She thanked me for helping her
to solve the problem. All I did is, “What do you think?” I have done hundreds of these exercises
in different classes, just with the simple question
“What do you think?” It makes my life easier,
(Laughter) and it makes them think, and they are discovering themselves
what should be done. What a great joy of discovery for them
and less work for professors, right? (Laughter) “What do you think?” is an outstanding way
to help our students. And the last part
of reinventing the wheel is I tell the students,
don’t take the students on a bus ride. This is from an educator called Jay Cross. We always take our students on a bus ride.
That means I am the driver, the professor. I control where the bus goes,
I control its speed. I stop where I want,
and the students are watching. It may be fun for a few minutes,
but they’re going to fall asleep. What I feel is that we have got to take
our students on a bike ride. Now if you are on a bike ride,
you cannot fall asleep, and you can stop anywhere you want. And you can make some
digressions and learn more. And the teacher becomes
an active participant with the students. So you’ve got to design your curriculum,
design your activity for a bike tour, that involves all the students. If you do all this, you’re going to
engage the students. And when you engage the students,
they learn automatically. That’s what I have learned. So my final thought is,
in my opinion, real learning occurs when you immerse
the learner in a situation. Allow them to perform. Give them feedback to change
or adjust their behavior. And that’s how real learning occurs. And our job as educators is
to create those situations. Thank you. (Applause)