Common Sense

A student that I had in one of my classes last spring wrote me recently for a book suggestion. He said that he wanted to learn more about the nature of business success and wondered what books I might suggest for him to read over the summer. I gave him a few titles that I like and then finished off with one of my very favorite books from many decades ago: Up the Organization.

I made the point to the student that I liked this last book especially because it made so much of business just seem like common sense. The book didn’t try to overwhelm me with weird ideas and theories or complex calculations and assumptions. It just said, in very simple terms, “if you treat people this way, you should get good results.”

After I wrote the student, I started to wonder if I could use the same logic in my teaching. Is there a common sense approach to teaching? The education system in the U.S. gets criticized quite frequently and experts put forth a lot of new suggestions all the time. However, improvement seems elusive. So, for the past 2-3 weeks, I have been pondering what a “common sense approach” to teaching might look like.

Here are some of the ideas that I came up with. (If you have some additional common sense teaching ideas, let me know.)

--The teacher should know what he or she wants to accomplish. How do you decide what you need to do each day if you don’t know where you and your class are going? How do you evaluate whether you are making the progress you want if you are not sure what you want to see happen? Seems like common sense to me. So, as an exercise, write down in (let’s say) 20 words or less what you want to see your students gain from your classes in the fall. I think this is a great way to start every semester.

--Be careful that you are not simply teaching your students to memorize. There’s a big difference between understanding and memorization. As you look at your goal above, does it require anything more than memorization? In the past, occasionally, people would appear on television who were memory geniuses. They would have the entire New York City phone book memorized or the name of everyone in the audience. When I write a test, I always picture that person. If the memory genius can make too high of a grade on my test, I’m not happy with how I’ve written it. I’m not trying to teach memorization so why reward it. I need to be testing more understanding, asking questions that would leave the memory genius completely stumped.

--I never expect students to read my mind. Never. That’s a bad teaching strategy. I tell them exactly what I want from them every single day. There should be no guesswork. I give them very specific assignments and I make sure that they are each of a proper length. Not too long to discourage them but not so short that it doesn’t seem to have any substance.

--I never expect students to do work unless they will eventually (sooner rather than later) see the reason for that assignment. If I ask my students to read a 5 page article for Monday, then on Monday I will question them about that assignment. “In the article you read for today, what did WorldCom do wrong, why do you think they did it that way, and how should they have operated differently?” If an assignment is given but not mentioned later by the teacher, students have every reason to believe they wasted their time.

--If a student is given an assignment and it is not done properly, there should consequences. Students are gamblers. They are constantly weighing out what might happen if they don’t do a certain amount of work. If you ask students to read Chapter One and they don’t and you do nothing about it, then you can certainly expect them NOT to read Chapter Two. That will follow as night follows day. They have now been conditioned (by you) to ignore what you ask them to do.

--When you call on students in class, call on the poor ones the same number of times that you call on the good ones. If you consistently call on John twice in every class but call on Susan only once, everyone in class gets the signal (especially John and Susan). What that exact signal is will depend on you (and why you call on John more), but all of the students will quickly get the message. One of the greatest rewards of teaching is turning a poor student into a good one. That is so much harder to do if you are sending signals that you recognize that some students are better than others. For example, I have a tendency to ask harder questions to the better students and easier questions to the poorer students. That is one habit that I want to break. I’m subtly telling the poorer students that I don’t believe in them and their ability to become better students.

--Care enough about your students as human beings to actually listen to their answers. It is very easy to make a quick evaluation (“this person is totally lost”) and start thinking about the next question you are going to ask. The student talking is a human being and deserves your full attention as they try to piece together an answer to your question. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the pattern of their thought process as they work through the answer. They are talking to you; you should care enough to listen.

Okay, I could probably list 25 more like these. They are all just plain common sense. There is nothing here that every teacher in America could not do starting this fall. However, I’ll bet if you follow these religiously, you would improve as a teacher. Maybe not much, but some. And I have always held that the secret to becoming a great teacher is a little improvement each and every semester. And, to make that improvement, you don’t need to follow some complicated new educational fad. I’m betting common sense will be enough.


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