Teacher-as-alchemist, turning silence into gold

I teach a course about teaching and learning in #highered to a dedicated and enthusiastic group of graduate students and postdocs. One of our sessions is about “teaching-as-research,” something the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network describes like this:

The improvement of teaching and learning is a dynamic and ongoing process, just as is research in any STEM* discipline. At the core of improving teaching and learning is the need to accurately determine what students have learned as a result of teaching practices. This is a research problem, to which STEM instructors can effectively apply their research skills and ways of knowing. In so doing, STEM instructors themselves become the agents for change in STEM teaching and learning.

Teaching-as-Research involves the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of students and teachers.

* CIRTL focuses on STEM but this description of scholarly teaching applies to every discipline, from Anthropology to Zoology


In my class, students begin outlining a teaching-as-research project they could execute in their next teaching opportunity. When we get to the part about the design of the experiment, I show them this  fantastic video by Derek Muller.


Go ahead and watch. Play along with Derek and try to solve the puzzle.

The point is to be wary of confirmation bias. If you do some kind of intervention in your class and then students get good course marks, well, you don’t really know why. It could be just another white swan.


Mine is a teaching and learning course so I work hard to model the practices we discuss. When using video in class, I recommend the instructor prompt the students to watch the video like an expert in the field would watch it. That way, students can anticipate and recognize when key events occur, so they’ll be prepared to contribute to the discussion after the video.

So, please watch the video again. This time, watch for the golden moments when people got it, those light-bulbs-going-off, “A-ha!” moments when you know learning occurred.

When I watch the video, there are a couple of times when I sit up, point at my screen and exclaim, “There! Right there! Something just clicked in that guy’s head!”

Three times…

Those golden moments are rare and precious. If there’s potential for one to happen, you don’t want to get in the way. So, please watch Derek’s video again. This time, now that you know something magical happens a couple of times, watch carefully for what happens just before the light bulbs go off. I noticed something and I want to see if you notice it, too.

Did you notice?

Here’s what happens starting at 2:05 in the video

Derek: Hit me with three numbers.
Woman: 3, 6, 9
Derek: Follows my rule.
Man: Oh, that didn’t follow my rule.

Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller's "Can You Solve This?" Text added by Peter Newbury.
Screen capture at 2:14 from Derek Muller’s “Can You Solve This?” Text added by Peter Newbury.

That’s the golden moment. And what happened just before something clicked  in the man’s head?

A pause.

An eternity-long, 5-second pause.

No prompt from Derek.


Just silence.

Our students need time to think! So quit yapping at them, filling every silence with information and helpful(?) hints. Learning is hard. It takes time. Time to think. Telling them what to think, how to think, when to think — that’s not helping them learn. They need to experience what to think, how to think, when to think for themselves.

Silence is golden. Go create some in your class.

2 Replies to “Teacher-as-alchemist, turning silence into gold”

  1. We have tremendous rercsuoe invested in tech. The equipment and infrastructure make the sky the limit in our district, but there is little inservicing in the possibilities that tech has to offer. We have laptops, projectors, desktop computer labs, COWs, computers in nearly every room, an onsite TV lab, and the list goes on. Without inservicing too many teachers are left out of the tech loop.

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