Monday, March 14, 2011

Responsibility of the Teacher and the Student

I sat down a few weeks ago working with someone on a piece of software that I knew fairly well. He was totally new to the software and to the problem space. So, I sat down to "teach him the software", and he was on the other end of a Skype call learning the software.

This happens every day all over the world. Sometimes it's a success. And sometimes it's a complete disaster. Heck, even in just the teaching and learning I've been involved in, there have been great successes.... and really frustrating sessions. Over time, I've learned that an interaction between a teacher and a student is effective if both parties meet their responsibilities.

The responsibilities of the teacher:
  • Know your subject. If you're shaky on the topic and have to frequently say, "no, actually, hang on...", then the lesson will not go well.
  • Structure the lesson. Spend some time before you start thinking about the order in which you will proceed. Otherwise, you'll find yourself jumping back and forth, and that's frequently confusing.
  • Open a feedback loop. Don't assume silence indicates understanding. Stop frequently and ask if there are questions, then wait for a response.
  • Ask for understanding statements. Stop periodically and provide impromptu questions or exercises for the learner. It will help both you and the learner make sure that understanding is really there.
  • Do it on the learner's computer. If you're learning something like a tool or a language or a set of source code, working on the learner's computer ensures their computer is set up correctly to apply the lessons they're learning.

The responsibilities of the student:
  • Ask questions. The minute you don't understand, stop the teacher and ask. The teacher won't know you're confused if you don't say something.
  • Focus. It's easy to keep IM open in the background or check your email and figure you'll pick up the thread later, but you'll be much more likely to be confused. So close the email and chat, and focus on the lesson.
  • Practice. Once the lesson is over, apply it as quickly as possible. Practice solidifies the things you've learned. Plus, it's a lot easier to go back with questions right after the lesson than weeks later.
In any teaching situation, everyone involved - both the teacher and the student - has responsibilities. Accept your responsibilities, and the lesson will go much better, no matter which side you're on.

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