Category: How People Learn

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.

You don’t have to wait for the clock to strike to start teaching

In the astronomy education community, it’s almost universal that we come into the classroom and, as quickly as possible, get a browser on the screen showing Astronomy Picture of the Day. As the students find their seats and settle, they can’t help but glance up at the picture. It gets them into “astronomy mode.” More often than not, the instructor can find some connection between each day’s APOD and the class’ content. We can begin each day with a conversation about astronomy.

Recently, I’ve been visiting classes of first-time instructors. Many times, the students arrive, find their seats, stare momentarily at the blank screen, and launch into some conversation with their neighbors. And not one about astronomy or chemistry or history or whatever they’re going to be doing for the next 50 or 80 minutes.

That’s an opportunity lost.

Instructors, your students are here, ready to turn their attention to your material. Grab their fleeting curiosity and exploit it! Find a picture or diagram or something interesting, maybe even from later in today’s class, and put it on the screen. And then do this:

Add two lines of text:

What do you notice?
What do you wonder?

Can there be better prompts for starting a conversation with your students? EVERY student can notice something and wonder about it. This is another opportunity for you to

  • give your students practice interpreting graphs/diagrams/photographs
  • give them practice talking about your field
  • create an opportunity for your students to contribute to the class, rather than being spectators
  • learn what your students are thinking about — that’s critical if you want to build new knowledge on existing knowledge (you know, How People Learn…)

For example…

I know N=1 isn’t data so let me call this a case study about how a simple picture with those “notice” and “wonder” prompts reveals wonderful things about your students. I was in a meeting with half a dozen grad students, from all across campus, and I put up this slide:

sunset_whatdoyounoticewonder_peternewbury_ccWithin 30 seconds of me saying, “Well?”, they’d taught each other that this was a sunset. It went something like this:

There’s a half a Sun.
So it’s sunrise or sunset.
Dude, we’re in San Diego. The only place you see a horizon like that is West. This is a sunset.

Get. Outta. Here! Do you know how much context and personal experience and astronomical knowledge was revealed there! And I didn’t say a word of it!

So, do it! Find an interesting picture and make it your first slide. When you get to class, get it on-screen as quickly as possible, before you straighten your notes and pull last week’s homework from your bag and get the microphone cord threaded through your shirt and talk to that student about that thing and…

You don’t have to wait for the clock to strike before you start teaching.

Credit where it’s due

Big tip-of-my-hat to Fawn Nguyen who, through this post, introduced me to Annie Fetter at The Math Forum @ Drexel. Got 5 minutes? Watch this: