Sunday, October 12, 2014

What I Know About Teaching

About a year ago, a friend of mine was preparing to teach a class that he'd never taught before... He's done a lot of one on one education and training, but I he had never taught a group class, and he was looking for some advice. 

I thought I'd offer him what advice I could, and so I wrote (most of) what became this piece down. I thought I had posted it to the blog at the time, but when I searched for it to reference it earlier today, I couldn't find it. 

I decide to post it now, revising it with the new bits and pieces I was writing today. 

Remember, this is about teaching a class, not giving a lecture or a presentation, or a demonstration or conducting a forum... those are all different environments, with different priorities and different techniques.
Here's what I know about teaching, from my own personal experiences, in more than 15 years as a professional educator and trainer (and they are two different but related disciplines), and as a training and courseware developer.

The Big Picture Stuff

Style and Philosophy

I have almost entirely moved away from traditional lecture classes (unless the courseware vendor or certification authorities require specific curricula and delivery).

I find that my students learn better, and that I teach better, in an interactive and participatory environment. An extended and guided conversation, with open digressions and contextual questions, answers, and explanations.

I believe in instructor lead, but participant driven, training and education.

As such, I tend to use a modified Socratic method to lead my classes into participation. I use a lot of leading questions, and logic and reasoning problems. I try to get my students to extend and generalize from examples and principles we've covered before, and then apply them to new situations.

I also encourage students to (civilly and constructively) argue and debate, both myself and each other.

When I think it'll be responded to well, I'll often deliberately misstate or poorly state or frame an idea, or deliberately misapply a principle or not fully extend a thought etc... in order to prompt my students into exploring the correct or complete thought. If they don't speak up on their own or catch me in it, I'll straight out ask them as I go "So, am I using this properly? Is there a better way? What if I did this... Was that earlier example wrong?"

Importantly, I always encourage... in fact, right up front I tell my students that I require them... to speak up if they think I'm wrong, or they have a different idea or different perspective, or a different experience.

HOWEVER... that doesn't work for all courses, or all students.

Different materials and subject matters lend themselves to different styles of instruction and presentation; and most critically, different students learn better with different styles and methods.

You MUST tailor your material, and your style, to your students, and the environment and requirements of that specific class.  

The Classroom Environment

Obviously, I work in non-traditional educational environments. I am not generally (though I have) teaching classes full of 10th graders.

My students are generally adults, who have at the very least, taken a lot of time out of their life to attend my class. Often, they have paid (or their employers have paid) several thousand dollars to attend. They tend to have an entirely different level of motivation and a different set of incentives, than other instruction environments.

Also, I tend to have my students for a minimum of two straight hours (for short talks given at conferences, demos at group events etc...), and frequently for 6-8 hours a day (sometimes even 10 or more hours per day), for two to five days (for professional education and training).

In this kind of environment, we get to go as broad and deep on the subject matter, as our time, and the amount of material we have to cover, allow; and what we cover is largely dictated by the desires and needs of the students.

In general, I like to start a bit later... I find that anything I teach before about 9:30am doesn't actually stick... so I keep the first part of each morning light, or I make it review and freeform Q&A from the day before... or introductions and personal stories on the first day.

We get up and move around at least once an hour, for enough time to go to the bathroom, and get a drink, have a snack... then, refreshed, we get back down to the material with renewed focus.

The same for lunch, particularly if I can get it catered in. We get up, move around, eat, talk to each other, get to know each other and share experiences... and we relax, and try to enjoy our time.

It's critical for both you, AND your students, to take time to relax, and decompress, and get comfortable, throughout the day. Stay hydrated, keep your blood sugar right, and your electrolytes right. Avoid getting stiff, and avoid strain headaches. You will be more efficient and more effective, covering more material with greater comprehension and retention, if you are relaxed and comfortable.

Then, at the end of the day, I don't like to try to teach the material up to the bell. I always like to give at LEAST the last half hour as a freeform Q&A and review of anything the students want.

So yes... it's a different environment than a typical secondary education classroom...

That said, I think that professional trainers and educators, have some valuable insights and experiences to offer in improving secondary and university education.

The Detail Stuff... Technique and Technicalities


The most important thing, is to be prepared. You don't have to be a total expert on the material to teach a class in it, but you do have to know it, understand it, and prepare yourself with it (and with additional supporting material).

When I'm fully prepared for a class, I can be much more comfortable, extemporaneous, I can explain things better in a more engaging way, and I can change things up when it is necessary to, or when the class feels like that's where it's going etc...

Preparation allows me to be flexible, to be interesting, to be funny, to be personal, to be engaging; and lack of it, prevents these things... or makes them much harder...

...Or worst of all, makes them all there is, and no-one learns anything; except how good you are at vamping, or how well you can monologue at them off the printed materials.

Know not just the material you're teaching, but the history of it, the reasons and motivations behind it... how it got to be the way it is now. Understand the context of it, and how it will impact your students.

Even if all of this is not part of the class, people may ask questions about it, and again, knowing this stuff, and being prepared for it, will help you explain things better.


It's important to allow yourself to show through in the material. Be flexible. Use humor. Be personal. Change it up. Use personal examples and personal stories (when appropriate). If you don't have personal stories, use anecdotes from others, but make them real, personal, relatable...

It doesn't have to be directly personal, what it has to be is RELATABLE.

Be open... but don't make it about you, make it about the material USING yourself as the example, or as a pivot point around which your students can see and experience the material.


You need to repeat yourself.

Anything important you say, you need to say it at least three times; and if it's REALLY important, it's preferable to say something three times three...

That's three times at once, then three times again a little later, then three more times again near the end.

You can, and often should, say it in different ways, so long as it's absolutely clear that you're really saying the same thing. You don't have to say it three times over and over again in a row, but the repetitions should be close enough together to be clearly reinforcing.

Some folks don't need or want repetition, and almost everyone is bored or irritated by it eventually, which we certainly want to avoid.

However, so long as the repetition isn't excessive (more than four or five times -or more than four or five cycles of three repetitions- in a single lesson, unless each repetition is reinforced organically as a subpart of the lesson), even if the repetition bugs them a bit, they'll RETAIN it better.

... so long as you maintain...


Engage everyone, both as a group, but also individually. When you engage individually, so long as you do so in a way that everyone can see and hear, and isn't too specific to the individual, the audience can relate, and it's almost as good as engaging each of them individually.

Stop regularly and ask for questions; and make it clear when it's possible, that they can ask questions any time. If there's a point where you feel like you know there are questions, but no-one is coming forth, ask the question yourself, or ask leading questions of your students.

Engage your students with problems, exercises... bring them up to the whiteboard or chalkboard... Capture their attention fully, AND capture their intellect fully, AND engage their EMOTIONS... get them analyzing, and relating what you are doing, to themselves, their own knowledge and needs.

Use game design theory, and psychology, to your advantage.  A while back I wrote a piece on game design theory and engagement in sports, that I think has parallels and value to education as well.

Although it may not be immediately obvious exactly how this applies to education and training, I think you'll see the value, and I'm going to insert an extended quotation (feel free to skip ahead if you like):

"...Acquisition and retention are particularly critical to these games; and retention is achieved through engagement. 
The way game designers accomplish these missions are with spectacle, and reward psychology (positive and negative reinforcement through anticipation, reward and penalty; with a very strong bias towards reward, leavened by the occasional penalty), particularly competitive reward psychology. 
Something spectacular engages you for the duration of the spectacle. You are a passive participant. It attracts you, and fascinates you, but only for that moment. Retention requires maintaining engagement over time... becoming an active participant, either directly or as a metaparticipant. 
So... what does that have to do with sports? Or with spectator sports fans in particular?
Simple... Sports fans are players in a metagame.
Spectator sport fandom, although passively received (the fan isn't an active participant in the games they are watching); isn't a passive, receptive, entertainment experience (like a movie or television). 
However, much as television shows retain viewers by emotional engagement in the story (thus making them metaparticipants in the narrative); spectator sports retain fans by persistent emotional engagement with the sport, and particularly with their team (making them metaplayers in the game). 
Sports fandom, is a kind of play by proxy; much as horse racing, and other betting games (roulette for example) where the players interaction with the game is not part of the gameplay. This makes it a metagame. 
And metagames have the same success vectors as any other game. 
One of the things that makes Boston sports fandom so... passionate and crazy I guess is the best way to put it... is that a Boston fan is being fed with a near perfect reward psychology cycle. 
Boston teams win often enough (and often quite excitingly) to attract attention and generate spectacle. This  acquires new fans (or brings back those whose engagement has weakened); and it presses the "happy button" in existing fans, engaging their reward pleasure mechanism. 
Importantly though, Boston teams don't win so often that fans get victory fatigue, and need reward escalation to maintain engagement. 
When they're NOT winning, Boston teams are rarely just mediocre... they tend to alternate between "oh God so close..." and "total abject failure" (at least psychologically if not objectively). It may seem counterintuitive, but this is actually far more engaging than consistent high performance or even consistent victory. 
In terms of gaming theory, this 3 point cycle (victory, near victory, failure) helps create spectacle to attract and acquire participants; and helps create, reinforce, and increase engagement. 
Very importantly, it also helps maintain engagement (and thus retention) by reducing victory fatigue, anticipation fatigue, and expectation escalation. 
So... getting into that second and third part... 
Retention is achieved through continued engagement. When engagement is weakened or broken, you lose participants (gamers, fans). 
Engagement is created, reinforced, and increased; with spectacle, novelty, fascination, and competitive reward psychology as described above. 
Engagement is weakened or broken and you lose participants (gamers, fans) through frustration, demoralization, boredom, and fatigue. 
So, the challenge is to maintain or increase engagement over time.
In general, you deal with boredom and fatigue, through novelty. Change things up, so that a participants experience, expectations, and emotional engagement with the game are maintained, and thus they are retained. 
I mentioned victory fatigue above, but didn't define it, I should probably define the three elements of "game fatigue" now. 
Victory fatigue is what happens when a player receives too many rewards, or wins too much too easily. This tends to cause boredom, and frustration; because the rewards no longer feel like rewards. This weakens or breaks engagement. 
In an interactive game you can deal with victory fatigue (and to a lesser extent anticipation fatigue) by varying gameplay (introducing new and different ways of earning rewards) increasing challenge (NOT just increasing difficulty, though that is one way of doing so), increasing penalty for failure (though you can't do that too much or you break engagement through frustration and demoralization), varying rewards (making the rewards new, interesting, and different), or by increasing intensity or spectacle (making the rewards bigger or more desirable). These mechanisms keep the players anticipation and pre-reward engagement high, and their reward pleasure mechanisms responding strongly to the rewards. 
In most spectator sports however, you don't have those mechanisms available to you (or they are severely limited). The difficulty and rewards do escalate somewhat over the course of a season, but are basically fixed year to year (win a game, win a conference, win a division, win a playoff game, win a championship game). So, frequent and consistent victories, particularly championships, result in expectation escalation. 
The three major exceptions to this issue of fixed challenge and fixed rewards by the way, are motor racing, premiership style football (soccer), and NCAA football and basketball. Not surprisingly, the first two are the two most popular spectator sports in the world; and the third creates a degree of unreasoning passion far greater than any other sports in America. 
Anticipation fatigue is a more interesting issue. When you get that "so close" feeling too much, it actually tends to discourage and disappoint you, which increases frustration and breaks engagement i.e. "they get our hopes up every time then disappoint us every time... what's the point". 
Expectation escalation, is what happens when performance or rewards consistently exceed expectations (or consistently exceed the mean performance of a peer group).This causes people to "reset" their emotional expectation of what poor, acceptable, and excellent are, such that their median level of performance, even if it is objectively far better than average, is simply "expected". 
So, a team that wins 80% of the time, year after year, will eventually be expected to do so. If that team starts to win consistently less than 80%, even if they are still better than most teams and win 60% of the time; the emotional reaction of their fans will be the same as if they had objectively poor performance, rather than simply "less good". 
Lesser success can feel like failure, when you're used to greater success. 
Cycling between "not quite great", and "really bad" (even if "really bad" is actually mediocre statistically, the victories and near victories redefine emotional expectations such that mediocre FEELS like abject failure), actually creates and reinforces engagement, and passion; far more, and far more intensely, than consistently high performance. 
This by the way, is the exact same reinforcement cycle that creates and reinforces addiction. Reward (the high), anticipation (the process up to the high), and penalty (the come down and the jones). 
So... for Boston fans, it's like vegas slot machine designers were controlling things for optimum fan acquisition, engagement, and retention. 
It's an almost perfect metagame... arising without design... which is kinda neat.

I realize that was an extended, and somewhat esoteric digression, but I think it provides real value, and direct parallels with education and training. If nothing else, let me pull out a small subsection and slightly modify it:

  • Retention is achieved through continued engagement. When engagement is weakened or broken, you lose participants (or at least you lose their interest and attention)
  • Engagement is created, reinforced, and increased; with direct participation or metaparticipation, spectacle, novelty, fascination, and competitive reward psychology
  • Engagement is weakened or broken and you lose participants, through frustration, demoralization, boredom, and fatigue
It should be clear how those directly relate to engaging students attention and helping them learn.


After you've explained something important, ask particular participants to explain the point you've made, in their own words. If they don't get it quite right, lead them through figuring it out and explaining it properly.

Then ask THEM questions.

Then do it again with a different person, and ask them to explain it in a different way, or to come up with an example, or a scenario etc...

This is called mirroring. It's a communications exercise, that helps people understand what other people are saying, and how what they say is being perceived and understood by other people.

When you apply this to instruction, it serves those purposes, but it's also about making your students think through the problem or example or principle, and figure out how to relate to it, and relate it to others; rather than simply to repeat and regurgitate what they've been told.

It helps the student to truly understand and contextualize what they've learned, and to really show that they have done so.

It also helps you as an instructor, to be a better communicator, and to better understand how others communicate.

Comprehension and Retention

Finally... there is a basic instructional concept called the comprehension and retention cycle

  • See
  • Hear
  • Read
  • Show
  • Do
  • Repeat

To most effectively teach something, with the highest level of retention, your students should in some way:

  • See the material (with handouts, whiteboard/blackboard, slides etc...)
  • Hear the material explained (and remember the repetition above)
  • Read the material, both silently and aloud (or aloud to themselves in their own head, which is different from silently... it sounds silly, but there really is a difference. Try it)
  • Show them the material directly, in demonstration, preferably 3 different ways
  • Do what it is they have read, heard, and been shown, applying it and solving it or using it themselves; preferably in 3 different ways
  • Repeat it all again, preferably three times (or three times three for critical things); varying each time to explore the subject more fully, to maintain and increase engagement, and to allow the students different perspectives and examples to relate better to the material.

So... that's what I know about teaching and training... hope it helps.

Oh and one more thing...

Teaching is one of the greatest satisfactions, joys, and pleasures in my life. It helps me fulfill who and what I am... what I want and need to be.

I have learned far more from teaching, than I ever did from being taught... and perhaps separate from that... perhaps not... I have gained more insight and wisdom, about myself, and about the world, in so doing.

Take that as you will...