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On memories of the school's AV cart, cycling like Superman, and the skill that separates the great teachers from the lesser ones
When people wax nostalgic about their days in school, it's not uncommon for them to reminisce fondly about those days when they got to watch movies or videos instead of listening to a lecture. Part of the appeal, of course, was always the basic novelty of the event: Anything that breaks up a feeling of monotony will tend to be warmly received.
■ Yet we shouldn't overlook a different aspect of the appeal: Human beings are inherently curious creatures, and virtually all of us possess an almost infinite capacity to learn new things. It is a common creed among educators that every child can learn. But learning is a process that requires adaptation on the part of the instructor.
■ The process of teaching a subject is not all that different from changing the gears on a bicycle to match a path's terrain. Some subjects are inherently difficult -- like climbing a steep trail. Others are inherently breezy -- like riding on a flat straightaway, or even coasting downhill. And every student, young or old, comes to a topic with a unique amount of existing knowledge -- comparable to the strength of a cyclist's leg muscles.
■ The thing about "movie day" in school is how it affects the student's perception of the work ahead: It seems inherently easy. So, even in the case of a complex subject (metaphorically, an uphill climb), the perception is that the experience will be more like coasting downhill. Watching a video seems like an student's opportunity to shift into a low gear and simply absorb the moment.
■ Truly good educators see through to the bigger picture: The best instructors pay attention to the gear ratio on that metaphorical learning bicycle. The same amount of input effort can produce lots of speed if the gearing is appropriate to the terrain ahead, it can result in boredom and listlessness if the student feels as though they are pedaling downhill, or it can create terminal levels of frustration if the gearing fails to produce enough forward motion.
■ "Movie day" can begin to feel like Michael Guerra's "Superman" technique for cycling downhill. But nobody -- whether teacher, learner, or onlooker -- should allow themselves to overlook the bigger lesson: Human beings want to learn, and knowing the material alone isn't enough to make one a good teacher.
■ Pedagogy, or the skill of matching the material to the appropriate process for learning, matters enormously. Investing in it appropriately can make all the difference to whether students remember the subject matter -- or just the days off.