Some of my all-time best teachers taught journalism, history, economics, English and philosophy-and much of what I learned from them had little or nothing to do with those subjects. A few of those people actually had a profound impact on my life. Yet when I think about it, I can hardly remember more than a handful of the many, many teachers I’ve had over the last sixteen years. That is, of course, due in part to the fact that many of them taught me over a decade ago; but I can confidently say that, for the most part, they were simply unmemorable.
What makes a good teacher? It sounds like a simple enough question, but considering our current floundering educational system, maybe it makes sense to go back to basics and tackle the question. I’m going to limit the scope of this article to high school and beyond because, as much as I’d like to make sweeping generalizations, I’m not sure that I was particularly observant when I was young.
One problem with modern education-aside from the well-documented cases of excessive class size, poor funding and irrelevant test-teaching-is that it’s boring. The majority of teachers tend to teach either straight from the book or in a manner very similar to the book. The class ends up focusing on questions like, “Jane wants to rotate a circle with a three- inch circumference around the y-axis to form a sphere. How could she do it?” Why teachers still ask questions like these of high school students confuses me to no end. It is, as far as I can tell, nothing more than an “intellectual hangover,” to borrow an excellent phrase from Paul Graham. Because younger students need simple examples, their textbooks were originally riddled with
questions written in similar style, and somehow that became the norm for textbook format. Students solve math “problems” and memorize formulas but rarely learn to use math as a daily tool-at least beyond tipping on a check or figuring out their taxes, which so obviously require math that one hardly needs a teacher to see it.
Probably the area where this idea is most subtly problematic is history. Some people are naturally interested in history, but for the most part throughout high school the subject seems more about memorization than anything else. Memorizing groups of people, places, times-all of these are important to the study of history, but historical lessons are generally considered the most important reason for its study.
Yet when it comes to lessons, they tend to be listed in vague and academic terms that rarely connect with students. For instance, when discussing some of the problems that come with a democratic system of government, a commonly listed phrase could be “difficulty reaching a definitive consensus.” But that doesn’t imprint the idea on the mind. It’s just a meaningless phrase to copy and paste onto a test.
One of the best examples I’ve ever seen used in teaching was a hypothetical presented in a history class. The teacher asked what our class would do if we found out that, in the next 10 minutes, another class down the hall would attack and try to take our possessions. Actually having the students debate it would likely result in either anarchy or a few people vying to take control of the class response. It’s a simple lesson that’s short, fun and effective; and most importantly, the students would remember it. Long after the tired list of nebulous phrases had leaked out of their minds, those students would remember the chaos that ensued when they tried to figure out how to ward off an imaginary attack from the class down the hall.
Almost every great teacher I’ve had has taught this way. In journalism, I had a teacher who discussed why journalism is dying and the danger that posed to us individually. In history, I had teachers that discussed historical lessons that take place in our own lives. And in economics, my teacher assigned a book called Everyday Economics that brought complex economic concepts down to earth.
Of course, there is a great deal more to being a good teacher than merely inventing clever ways to teach the course material, and it’s impossible to entirely trash the old model. Formulas, for instance, are obviously essential to teaching math. But more memorable, down-to-earth teaching is definitely a good first step for educators trying to improve their methods. That kind of teaching is the reason I remember concepts like “tragedy of the commons” and principles of story structure. I had teachers who found ways to demonstrate why those concepts were important for more than just a test and made them interesting; teachers who made me realize that those ideas can be as relevant to everyday life as calculating the tip for a bill or the cost of filling up my tank with gas. In the end we need that kind of teaching, because frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether Jane figures out how to rotate a circle around the y-axis.