Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Retaining Empathy: Australian Football

I love American football. More specifically, I love Iowa Hawkeye Football. Seriously, it’s number 4 on my list behind my wife, unborn child, and bacon. So, when ESPN had “Australian Football” listed as must-see viewing at 11 p.m., how could I resist?

I’ve never been on psychedelic drugs, but I imagine this was about the same experience. Here’s a quick list of observations during my first 45 seconds of Australian Football:

  1. Players carrying babies (live human babies!) as they ran onto the field.
  2. Announcer starts with, “This won’t be a civilized game, there’ll be no jousting beforehand that is.”
  3. Really short shorts.
  4. Vocabulary that I can only assume was once a part of the English language but was then tortured until its only twisted purpose in life was to join English phonemes into frustratingly familiar yet inaccessible gibberish.
  5. The field is the shape of an egg.
  6. Swans vs. Tigers

Can I please say again that this represents only my first 45 seconds of viewing. The rest of my night was spent in a stupor staring at uncomfortably short shorts trying to understand why one goal is worth 6 points and why another was worth 1.

Did I mention that the announcer used the word “crucify” more often than Roger Federer hits a winner?

I started to get really uncomfortable. I started to think that maybe the Australians were a bit … off, you know? My liberal indoctrination from my undergraduate studies kicked in, “This is your opportunity to be multicultural! Seize this moment and maybe you’ll be able to drop some borderline douche-y remark at a party when talking of sporting events!”

Then I realized what ESPN was trying to tell me. This was not my chance to learn obscure facts about a marginally popular sport; this was ESPN engaging me at an allegorical level, as they’re wont to do:

The stadium was full. At least 50,000 venomous Aussies screaming for their, um, Swans to play some real good “footy.” It cannot be that the all 50,000 of them are out of their heads from being upside down so long, they must genuinely love the sport. An athropology professor once told me that you’ll never understand another culture until you accept the fact that the people in that culture are having just as valid experiences as you, with what might even be the same emotions, just mapped to slightly different stimuli.

I was put out simply because I didn’t know the rules, the vocab, nor did I particularly enjoy the Larry Bird shorts. I wanted to switch the channel to something more comfortable. I wanted to watch Food Network, but I decided to stick with it and tough out the entire game.

I Analogize for a Living:

It was nuts, and I realized that this is how my students feel. Let’s play Analogy! (replace “Science/Math” with “Australian Football”):

  1. Science/Math is full of proprietary vocabulary that often intersects tangentially with traditional English usage: Check
  2. Science/Math assumes goals and motivations that are often unclear to the untrained observer: Check

The problem was that ESPN assumed I knew the rules and just went head long into coverage. Raise your hand, if you’ve ever done this to a group of students. If you’re not raising your hand it better be because you don’t have any.

I didn’t understand the motivation for their tactics. I had no idea why a player would pass with their hands and then suddenly punt the ball wildly into a mass of opponents. I had no idea why people kept tearing each other down and the referee never stopped play. It didn’t matter what I thought; they all agreed, and they all played with tenacity.

The following is no different:

Teacher: And now we have this kind of function that has these goofy exponents. Suppose we wanted to find its solution. What would we do?

Students: <crickets>

Teacher: Obviously we would exponentiate both sides to the base e/2 and then assume that all epsilon terms go to zero, and you have the obvious answer of Pi/4!

Students: What’s a “solution?” Is that like when you mix vinegar and water?

Without the motivation — without understanding the drive for doing something — you can barely hope to become more than procedurally proficient.

I saw this in myself. I started trying to predict the behavior of the Aussie Footies (their word, not mine) based solely on the nonsense I had seen before. This did not work well for me. There was punting, passing, hitting, and one time the referee just threw the ball backwards over his head as hard as he could with his eyes shut. It was clear that my half-baked procedural understanding was lacking. Here’s the problem:

Procedural proficiency looks nice on paper, and it’s easily assessable with trinket quiz problems.

Designing assessments of the higher-order thinking skills takes more effort on the teacher’s part. For the players, it’s the game. Can they put together their understanding of the rules into a cogent offensive and defensive strategy?

How to do this in the classroom? You first have to commit to teaching the motivation for techniques. Sometimes this is hard, and the kids resist because motivation hasn’t been graded before so is therefore meaningless to them (read that again while imagining a single tear being shed by a Native American looking at a mini mall).

Knowing how to find a zero is nice, knowing why the hell you’d want to do that is better. Then the student won’t forget. Making this extensible is the next step. In what other situations would understanding zeroes actually be useful? That’s where you design the higher order assessment. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give practice problems and assess procedure, I’m just saying that’s not the whole picture of proficiency.

A student comes to you with an idea for a project, and you get to be the silhouetted puppeteer saying, “Oh, I think you should add in a part where you change the angle of the collision.” Your underhanded comment has spurred forward the student’s own idea into something doable, but you also know that there’s content demanded there that the student wouldn’t have normally interacted with. I’ve been unclear in my previous writing about this point, so I’d really like to say that again:

Student-centered does not mean teachers have no rights. It is a way of creating genuine motivation that relegates cheating and unauthentic assessment to the sidelines. You are a guide. The students want their questions to have sweet outcomes, and they know you can help them. Take their slightly crappy idea for a project about paint ball guns and turn it into something totally awesome with a ballistic pendulum and a video camera. You know that they’ll have to interact with some standard that they need to, and they will love doing it.

In case you’re wondering, the announcer never mentioned the jousting again. I was hoping for a half-time show of horses and lances, and was let down. Fun Fact! In England, jousting is called “tilting.”

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Shawn Cornally • July 4, 2010

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