The Components of Great Teaching

Everyone has been a student at one point in their lives.

Some may be indifferent to the experience, feeling it was irrelevant, some may have fond memories while others look back in disdain and wish to distance themselves from any similar experience in future. Even mentioning the word ‘school’ to some people can generate positive or negative feelings instantly based on their experiences.

Many have been put off the learning experience for good, while others have been blessed with teachers who have influenced or even changed their lives.

The fact that such a spectrum of reactions exist tells us 2 things:

  1. There are effective and ineffective ways of learning
  2. There are effective and ineffective ways of teaching

I have written previously about knowing how you as an individual learn best. It is ideal to figure this out as soon as possible so that you can adapt the content you take in, find teachers who transfer knowledge in the most appropriate way and tailor it to your learning style. Find a teacher who is effective in disseminating knowledge in the learning style most suited to you.

It is important to work on this for yourself as a prerequisite.

For now we will focus on the second inference by asking the question:

What exactly constitutes great teaching?

7 Factors of Exceptional Teaching

What follows in a non-exhaustive list of some of the factors which I consider to be integral to effective teaching.

Establish Meaning

It is in our nature as human beings to be curious, we cant help it. If we see something that doesn’t fit into our model or worldview, we strive to find out why it is as it is. If we encounter a problem or obstacle that stops us from achieving an end, more often than not we end up searching the internet or asking around how we can over come the issue.

A healthy sense of curiosity leads to action.

As James Clear writes:

“Being motivated and curious counts for more than being smart because it leads to action. Being smart will never deliver results on its own because it doesn’t get you to act.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

Understanding this aspect of human psychology means that you understand the underlying reason for people to be able to understand something effectively. Satisfying one’s innate curiosity in a clear manner lays a strong foundation for justifying why you believe in it. Therefore one of the core aspects of teaching a concept well is to explain what problem it solves.

  • Why is this concept necessary?
  • What obstacles did its absence establish?
  • How has it allowed us to overcome the obstacle?
  • What was our state before this concept?

By establishing the answers to these questions, you are providing the meaning and purpose of the concept which allows it to take root in the student’s mind, such that they are able to justify why they believe it to exist in the first place.

Once this seed has been planted, its roots can be established and fundamental questions about its purpose and importance can be answered. Instead of having a surface level understanding of what the concept it, students will be able to explain why it is needed in the first place, thus cementing its importance and essential nature. Quenching their curiosity leads to deep understanding.

Teach your students the problem the concept solves.

Drop Unreasonable Assumptions

As a teacher, it is vital to understand that your view on the subject you are teaching is inherently biased.

You already know the concept being taught. You understand it, you know the problem it solves and you understand the prerequisite components and minor details that are required for a comprehensive understanding of it. While teaching the concept to others, it is very easy to overlook some of the finer details that fill in the small gaps of the concept.

  • When explaining part of the mathematical formula used to prove a concept, you use another tool to reach the conclusion which your students are not familiar with
  • While explaining your logical reasoning for a concept you fail to explain exactly why the reasoning is a valid line of inquiry in the first place
  • During a live demonstration of a computer program, you use a specific keyboard shortcut to open a menu that no-one can see and you don’t even think about explaining it because of its second nature to you

Each of the above situations are real world examples of teachers projecting their own level of familiarity and confidence with the subject matter onto their students.

This projection – while optimistic – is often very misplaced and can obscure the path to deep understanding for many students. When the logical path to a conclusion is marred with blots of mystery, it is hard to reach the intended destination.

A vital component of effective teaching is to explain each of your steps without assuming your students ‘already know’ every seemingly minor detail. Keep in mind your own level bias.

Be aware of the opposite end of this however. This doesn’t mean to baby your students either and hold their hand at every stage, sometimes leaving small gaps can be done on purpose so that they can fill it through inference of what they have learnt and strengthen their understanding themselves. The trick is to have an understanding of what they might be expected to fill in themselves and what they could not possibly know without instruction otherwise.

Intentional gaps are fine, praiseworthy even, but they should be chosen purposefully such that your students are inherently equipped to fill them without intervention.

Equally important is the consideration of the manner by which you explain the small details. Going overboard and explaining each minor step in excruciating detail may seem patronising and condescending, even if your intentions are noble. Students need to feel as though they are believed in and that their teacher believes in their capability to understand the concept. Too much hand-holding can work against this.

The right amount of belief in your Students has been shown to have an objective impact on grades:

“…Prospective teachers were given a list of students who had been identified as “high achievers.” The teachers were told to expect remarkable results from these students, and at the end of the year, the students did indeed show sharp increases in their IQ test scores.

In reality, these children had been chosen at random, not as a result of any testing. It was the teachers’ belief in their potential that was responsible for the extraordinary results.”

Carol Kinsey Goman, The Silent Language of Leaders

The final reason why it is important to consciously be aware of gaps in explanations and to explain where necessary is because of the fact that a large proportion of students may not possess the confidence to ask you publicly about something they don’t understand in front of their peers.

I have personally been a part of and witnessed many situations where concepts were being taught and explained, yet despite a lack of understanding, no one dared to question or raise any queries about what was being taught. The pressure of speaking up in a group and being open about your lack of understanding is something that requires courage and confidence. Even for those already possessing such virtues, feelings of embarrassment may still prevent them from speaking out at the time.

The irony with this however, is that despite an individual amongst a group not speaking out due to not understanding something due to embarrassment in front of his peers, it is very likely that a significant proportion of his peers feel the exact same way! They too did not understand what was being taught and were too caged into silence by their fear of embarrassment. It turns out that any individual who possessed enough courage to speak out and question the teacher would have benefited multitudes of people.

Such scenarios are not uncommon; people will do anything to save face, even if unjustified. The result being that silence harms many, while speaking out benefits many.

As a teacher, while you may not be able to compel anyone to speak up, you can ensure that such situations where students are left confused by gaps of knowledge they cannot fill are reduced to an absolute minimum – if not abolished entirely. Understand and analyse your teaching to figure out any potential gaps that your students may be unequipped to fill by themselves ad make sure you explain it.

Leave nothing assumed that requires explanation. No matter how small.

Manageable Discomfort

A healthy teaching relationship between Teacher and Student(s) is one where the the Teacher understands the level of the Student and keeps them on their toes. Their minds must be maintained at such a level where they are grounded upon the foundations that have recently been established and moving forward firmly into new territory.

It is similar to the idea of a man crossing a bridge made of rope and wood. With each foot that is planted firmly on a single rung, the other must be moving forward onto the one in front which is been freshly laid. A balance of movement for the individual enabled by the continuous establishment of the path before him.

In his bestselling book, James Clear writes:

“…One of the most consistent findings is that the way to maintain motivation and achieve peak levels of desire is to work on tasks of ‘just manageable difficulty.'”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

Striking such a balance where Students are in a continuous state of learning and advancing provides the fuel of motivation they need to continue their learning.

Were they left inadequately challenged, they would feel bored and find it difficult to see any reason to continue, other than obligation. On the other hand, were they pushed too far into new territory without establishing new knowledge, they would easily feel lost, burnt out and experience a complete loss of motivation to carry on.

Both ends have undesirable outcomes. It is vital to keep Students at a predefined, pre-calculated level of difficulty such that they can utilise what they know in order to discover and understand what they don’t.

As Robert Browning wrote:

“…A man’s reach should exceed his grasp…”

Don’t make things too easy.

Foster a Healthy Environment

The theater upon which the great play between Teacher and Student is played should be one of reassurance, understanding and patience.

Many of us have heard at one point another a friend or colleague say to us as a preposition to a question some variant of, “I know it’s a stupid question, but …”. What a shame! No question asked with the spirit of genuine curiosity and desire to be educated is one of stupidity. Rather this is an indication of the state many people feel they exist in. One where people must maintain a façade of knowing everything for fear of losing face is they don’t!

Such an environment isn’t one that is fertile for the seeds of learning to genuinely sprout, so ensure that it is instead one where you as the authority figure are approachable and one where you do not take to any indignation at being asked a question, though you may have tired yourself trying to explain it previously or long ago. Be an exemplary standard to your Students such that they feel they can ask any question, no matter how basic, and have their curiosity and queries treated with the utmost respect.

This is, after all, why they are a Student and why you are the Teacher. It is surprising to see how many people forget the fundamentals of this dynamic.

In addition, accounting for the unavoidable fact that some may be afraid to ask questions regardless of how comfortable they may be, it is your duty as an Educator to ensure that the environment has been correctly established such that those who ask questions and are curious have the space, time and opportunity to do so.

To take it a step further, Teachers should actively engage with their Students to check their understanding of concepts without necessarily waiting for feedback. It helps Students even if it may be slightly uncomfortable, and it aids with the Teacher getting an understanding of the level at which his Students are at.

Ensure the environment you make for your Students is one that inspires, nourishes and cultivates respect, self esteem and inquisitiveness.

Know Your Audience

While your teaching content will remain more or less the same each time it is taught, the method of delivery will be highly dependent on the demographic of your Students.

It is unfathomable that the middle aged and the teenager will be receptive to the all of same teaching techniques, and as an educator it is a responsibility to tailor yourself and the method of delivery to each individual demographic such that it can be received and accepted in the most optimal way.

This builds an impression of relatability whilst also building admiration from your Students towards you. It also has the added benefit of breaking down barriers that exist between you and your Students to the extent that you are not just known by your ‘Teacher’ title, but as a Mentor and as someone who they can see themselves in.

As a Teacher, ensure that you tailor your demeanor, humor, pace, tone and humility depending on your Students. For some matters, the ‘One Size Fits All’ approach is both inefficient and insincere.

Short and Sweet

Even the most dedicated Students have their limits. Our motivations eventually wear out at one point or another to the extent that nothing – no matter how engaging – is able to immediately restore it.

Having reached such a point with your Students means it is already too late. But fret not. Ensure that monotonous activities are broken up with others that actively keep Students engaged and keep their brains active. Ask concept-checking questions, or any which make them think using recently learnt knowledge. Run activities and leave them to their devices to figure it out for a short while.

Ensure that lessons do not drag on incessantly, as their mental wall of resistance grows higher the longer you “preach” to them. Conversely, structuring your teaching to feel like short bursts will leave Students eager for more. Content is more easily digested in this manner.

Utilise Analogies

Proceeding upon new territory is fresh and exciting, but it can also be daunting and confusing, especially when the terrain is not fully understood. The best way to establish a level of confidence is to find what we are already familiar with in this new land and build upon it.

In the same way, utilising accurate analogies are an essential part of explaining new concepts to Students in an effective manner.

More often than not (and especially so at an advanced level), the subject matter being taught is so abstracted away from reality at a level we cannot see or comprehend with our senses that it feels almost impossible to understand.

Without the iron-like reliability of our senses, we can easily feel intellectually disoriented and out of our depth, especially if other colleagues and classmates seem to have picked up on understanding the concept ahead of us. So how can we counter the emergence of this fissure dividing Students into camps of understanding and confusion?

An apt analogy has the capability to bring anyone confused about a topic back to a level playing field once more.

Analogies allow us to use our existing tools of thought on more familiar examples, such that we can extrapolate that understanding towards new topics. A good analogy helps a Student to understand that the particular issue he is having issues with is not necessarily a new one, but is simply an old one wearing a different garment.

A simple, accurate analogy helps us to unravel the deception and make the unfamiliar familiar once more.

The Fruits of Great Teaching

Negative experiences as a Student can have lasting impacts throughout a person’s life. It can destroy self esteem and lead people to unjustly believe that they are inherently unintelligent and unable to learn anything or be ‘smart’. You may even find these same people who made much less ambitious life choices or even gave up on dreams because of this lack of self belief. Their experiences altered their aspirations before they had even begun. The sorrow you feel meeting someone who feels this way is crushing.

Thankfully the opposite is also true.

Effective teaching implicitly encourages the Student to feel like they can learn anything. It cultivates the desire for learning and advancement. They see the Teacher who has mastered the art of teaching as an enabler who could help them understand anything. Barriers and obstacles are removed from their paths as their intellectual horizons broaden before them. They feel empowered and inspired with confidence.

Abraham Maslow mentions the following about the power of knowledge and its effects:

“…It may be said that one of the main conative functions of education is this neutralizing of apparent dangers through knowledge, e. g., I am not afraid of thunder because I know something about it.”

Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation

Learning about a topic has the effect of removing doubt, uncertainty and fear from an individual. Teaching effectively means that you become the vehicle for that transformation for your Students.

Ultimately, we must keep before us the real reason behind the striving for education. It is not merely to pass exams or to parrot facts blindly.

Rather, as Tyron Edwards once wrote:

“The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; to train it to the use of its own powers, rather than fill it with the accumulation of others.”

Academic education is merely a tool to be used to enable a person to think clearly for themselves and to unlock new understandings that those before them had not yet achieved.

The Student who is taught well and leaves with a positive learning experience may walk away with his own desire to change the world for the better by returning to the same route. He may wish to impart the feelings of empowerment onto others by teaching them as he was once taught and thereby change the trajectory of many lives.

At that point the cycle would have completed, and the once fresh, eager Student becomes ready to impart his own experience, enthusiasm and wisdom onto the next generation.

Perpetuate the positive cycle. Teach well.

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