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If you’ve been teaching or learning something for more than a few years, you’ve likely developed a level of knowledge and expertise that exceeds that of most students. Most teachers know this, but it is easy for us to forget. We can get so caught up in preparing the next lesson or covering the material that we forget to stop and try to understand the experience of the beginner, which is exactly what many of our students are when it comes to the things that we want to teach them.
The danger of forgetting or losing sight of the plight of the novice is that we can create wonderfully organized and well-planned lessons that just don’t seem to work. Students struggle. They get frustrated. They get intimidated. They withdraw or act out amid their fears and frustrations. Or they might nod as if they get it when in reality they are baffled by much of what you just said or tried to teach them.
As such, I contend that it is helpful to remind ourselves of what it is like to be new at something. That is why the commitment to lifelong learning is not just a pleasant platitude for teachers. It is a requirement for growing in the art and science of teaching and for relating to our students in important ways.
Consider the following traits of being a newbie at something.
- You have limited prior knowledge about the subject, so it is more challenging to understand even basic concepts at first.
- You don’t have a robust vocabulary to make sense of many important concepts.
- You are not aware of common pitfalls, and you are likely to make simple mistakes. You’re probably a bit self-conscious about this fact, so feeling safe and not judged helps you take the risks needed to work through the mistakes.
- You don’t have a clear sense of how to organize the facts into some sort of meaningful structure or system. Everything, at first, just seems like a pile of content or information. So, you need to figure out how the different ideas and facts relate to one another, how they can be organized in a way that gives you a growing sense of the big picture.
- You can’t easily identify trends or patterns. This doesn’t come until you’ve started to build a base of knowledge and growing expertise in the new domain.
- Doubt and fear are common feelings, as is embarrassment. If you give in to these feelings, you may well give up or never achieve mastery. So, you often benefit from help working through these feelings.
- There is no way around the need for extended and deep practice. You can’t short-cut the journey to growing expertise. It takes patience and persistence.
When is the last time you had to learn something new and work through these sorts of feelings and traits? How did you do? What helped you? What hindered you? While your approach to learning something new is not necessarily the same as your students’ approach, it can still be useful to have a handful of such experiences as a teacher. It helps us with empathy and reminds us of the challenges (and opportunities) of approaching something that is completely new to us. Following are four tips for growing in your ability to help students learn something new.
Learn Something New and Challenging
Challenge yourself to learn something new at least a few times a year. I’m not just talking about reading a new book. I’m referring to a learning goal, something that requires practice and persistence over days, weeks, or months if you are going to become competent. Better yet, consider something challenging enough that you don’t know if you can actually accomplish it. Then stick with it. This will allow you to tap into the very skills and mind-sets that many of your students will need if they are going to thrive.
Ask the Students
Ask your students about what it is like to learn something new. A personal experience with learning something new is valuable, but each student’s experience is going to be a little different. So, find ways to survey them, chat with them in groups, even informally interview them about their experiences. What are their fears, joys, and challenges?
Have the Students Help Other Students
Invite students to create examples and illustrations. We often create examples and illustrations that make sense to us, but a student who recently learned the same thing can often come up with ideas that help others connect. They are closer to the same level of understanding, which sometimes allows them to explain the ideas to one another better than we can hope to do ourselves.
We can also have students coach and assist one another. It might be students from a previous semester or year, for example. There is something about seeing a person very much like you who is encouraging and supporting you. It gives you a confidence boost, reminding you that others have accomplished this and so can you.
Create a Safe Place
Create a place that is safe and welcomes mistakes. The fear of mistakes and failures can be so overwhelming for some students that they check out. While the right amount of tension might actually be a motivator, for those who are new and already a bit overwhelmed, a classroom full of the fear of judgment from classmates or others will cause the motivation and confidence to plummet. Take the time to talk to students directly about the experience of learning something new. Invite them to talk about how to create the best possible classroom culture for learning and improving. Then invite and expect students to help create that sort of culture.
Learning something new can be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding for student and teacher alike. All it takes is a little bit of intentionality and planning, and you can help set up the conditions whereby your classroom of beginners will soon achieve competence and eventually find themselves having arrived at mastery.
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