Things They Should Have Taught Me

5/07/2008 10:42:00 pm

Today I swung a meter stick around the classroom like a samurai sword. I called it: "My great and mighty swuhord!" It's become my standard opening for the unit on conic sections which we'll be studying in grade 12 pre-cal for the next week or so. This is followed by playing with paper; folding it to create a parabola according to the locus definition — but I don't tell them that's what we're doing right away. Here are the slides from the class:

As I swung the swuor ... meter stick, I spoke Japanese with a feigned accent: "Kawasaki, Susuki, Honda! Sony Mitsubishi!" (Yeah yeah, they're not all Japanese. I know.) My lips kept moving soundlessly after I finished speaking. We we're rolling on the floor laughing. We had to stop for a laugh break. Talking straight faced about mathematics, my lips continued moving for a few seconds after I spoke throughout the rest of the class.

Here's the thing though, when I started talking about the connections between the geometry and the algebra behind parabolas I had their complete attention. They followed every step of the way. Even those that don't usually pick things up quickly the first time picked it up fairly quickly when it was reexplained.

I've always tried to use some humour in my classroom, but reading an article about two years ago really inspired me to try to inject even more humour in my teaching. It's called USING HUMOR IN THE COLLEGE CLASSROOM TO ENHANCE TEACHING EFFECTIVENESS IN "DREAD COURSES". This is part of a larger course for college instructors on how to be better teachers.

Why don't they teach this stuff to pre-service K12 teachers? Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff before I walked into the classroom? There's certainly plenty of research out there supporting the use of humour to enhance teaching and learning. For example, this article from the Journal of Statistics Education Using Humor in the Introductory Statistics Course was written almost six years ago. From the article:

  • • Humor Builds Relationships and Enhances Communication
    When students talk in class (I'm going to use this one!): “What! I hear voices again. My psychiatrist told me that if I keep taking my Prozac the voices will go away.”
  • • Humor is a Stress-Reducing Tool (preparing for tests)
    If you make certain very egregious errors (for example, a negative probability), not only will you not get partial credit, but we will somehow manage to take points off of exams you are taking in other subjects. We might even take away points from courses taken in high school. In fact, one day, when your children and grandchildren are taking my class, we will take away points from their exams too! Alternatively, “Give me a probability greater than one and I will take away your car.”
  • • Humor Makes a Course More Interesting
    "Education is the only paid-for commodity regarding which, the less you provide, the happier the customer."
  • • Humor Enhances Recall of Information
    Years - some would say days - from now, students will have forgotten much of what we teach them. But they remember the humorous methods used to illustrate important points.

This is probably my favourite joke in the article:

A statistics major was completely hung over the day of his final exam. It was a true/false test, so he decided to flip a coin for the answers. The statistics professor watched the student the entire two hours as he was flipping the coin ... writing the answer ... flipping the coin ... writing the answer. At the end of the two hours, everyone else had finished the exam and left the room except for that lone student. The professor walked over and said, "Listen, I see that you did not study for this statistics test, you didn't even look at the exam questions. If you are just flipping a coin for your answers, what in the world is taking you so long?" Still flipping the coin, the student replied "Shhh! I am checking my answers!"

Humour relaxes us and helps us think better. Shouldn't something like that be a part of every curriculum and instruction class?

And speaking of Things They Should Have Taught In The Faculty Of Education, what about presentation skills? Stuff like how to use your voice, organize text and images to convey ideas, how to "work a room". Shouldn't this also be taught in Faculties of Education? Teachers are "on stage" every day, several times a day, presenting content and "working the room" to help kids learn. This seems like such a "no brainer". Does any Faculty of Education anywhere specifically teach presentation skills in the way the teacher in this video or this one (from in the UK) gets that help when he tried to go "From Good to Outstanding?"

In the last several years I've given a number of presentations to many different audiences. The skills I've developed have spilled over into the classroom. Compare how I taught this class last year:

to how I taught it this year:

The image in that last slideshow introduces what I think is another powerful teaching practice: metaphorical thinking. A binomial distribution is displayed graphically as a sort of bar graph called a histogram (the dogs are lined up in a way that is reminiscent of a histogram). Also, an experiment is binomial if and only if it has exactly two outcomes, typically described as "success" and "failure". Do you see this characteristic displayed in the image? My students did. But that's a post for another time.

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  1. Ha, I can use some of these!
    > Why don't they teach this stuff to pre-service K12 teachers?
    (a) Learning by discovery is Ed School dogma. Ha. "I must laugh or I would cry."
    (b) Alas, some cherubs see teacher humor as their own clown license. - GJ

  2. Anonymous8/5/08 11:06

    This reminded of this post I read yesterday about entertainment, engagement and ownership.

    We likely have many teachers who do what you do with entertainment and engagement but perhaps not with ownership.

    The great thing about you is that you've clearly established a pattern of ownership for students that is the core of your work. Great to see you talk about entertainment and engagement. Those three ideas are beginning to emerge as the core of good teaching, at least for me anyways.

  3. Thanks for the reminders about creating an engaging environment! And thank you for sharing your slides. I always get great ideas about how to structure my own (I wish I had some way to easily capture the students' work on the board).

    You might find some of the virtual experiments on this site to be of use in your stats work.

    I don't know where I heard this, but it has helped a few kids understand the Normal Distribution: "What's the sound of a normal distribution?" The sound of microwave popcorn being popped.

    Thanks again for all of the great work that you share. I may not comment often, but I love reading your posts. I learn a great deal.

  4. Ok, I loved the one about "If you make certain very egregious errors .." and have definitly stolen that one for my board... My kids favoriet is the poster I made that say,"NEVER miss a good opportunity to SHUT-UP".. Anytime someone comes out with the really stupid gaffe, they all point to the back of the room where it hangs. I think the way we use humor has to depend on our personalities, and you will never see prep courses really demonstrate it to the level some of us use (abuse?) it..