Why Good Teachers Are Like Pokémon

I can almost remember the very first class I was responsible for. It was a college-level physics lab, and I was a graduate teaching assistant. It was both fun and weird. I wasn’t much older than the students, but there I was, in charge of it all. That was a long time ago.

In the years since, I’ve changed the way I approach science education (though sometimes I go back to habits and methods from that first course). In fact, I think educators are sort of like Pokémon: We evolve to different levels and gain different powers (sadly, we look different too). In my experience, there are three levels in the development of a teacher.

Level 1: Spokesperson

This is where just about everyone starts. As a graduate TA, I pretty much just took the material that was provided and passed it along to the class. If there was a lab manual, I stuck to the manual. For a lecture course, it meant following the order of topics in the textbook. If a publisher produced a set of PowerPoint notes, I’d use that.

At this level the instructor is really just a mouthpiece. They take what the author says and repeat it to the students. It’s sort of like Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest (a movie you need to watch). Her only job on the starship is to take orders and repeat them to the computer. She would be a level 1 educator.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you just have to be level 1. That’s life. This semester I picked up an astronomy course for non-science majors at the last minute. What do you do with a week to prepare? Yup, you download the PowerPoint slides. There are things I would have liked to change, but it’s not always possible. (Here are my reflections on that course, if you’re interested.)

Level 2: Content Master

When the textbook just isn’t good enough, you need to evolve to the next level as a content creator. Here, the instructor doesn’t just take what’s in the book. Now they change the material. How? Here are some hallmarks of a level 2 Poké-teacher:

  • Changing the order of topics (forces before kinematics in physics)
  • Tweaking equations—e.g., writing v1 for initial velocity instead of vi
  • Complaining about notation. Older textbooks show vectors as variables in bold face. Now we draw an arrow over the variable.
  • Making a point to call g the “local gravitational field,” with units of newtons per kilogram, instead of the “acceleration due to gravity”
  • Creating original PowerPoint slides for a particular topic

These are just small examples. There are a thousand ways to make the material your own. You could write your own textbook. You could even forgo using a textbook and rely on your own notes and presentations.

Really, this is probably where most instructors live—everyone likes to customize their courses, even if it’s just a little bit. But more advanced teachers, with a solid mastery of the content, start to have their own ideas about the presentation of topics.

Level 3: Enlightened Education

At some point, you start to figure some things out. You realize that no matter how clearly you present the material, many students still won’t get it. For educators on level 2, the reaction is to try to improve the content. There’s an assumption that if you could only make the perfect lecture, everyone would understand. It’s so simple.

In fact, real learning is far from simple. It’s messy. It’s frustrating. It makes you want to scream sometimes—both teacher and student. Exhibit A:

One of the first ideas taught in Physics 101 is the relationship between forces and motion. Some textbooks call this “Newton’s second law” (though I avoid that nomenclature). This says that when there is a net force on an object, that object will accelerate. As an equation, it looks like this, where m is the object’s mass and a is its acceleration:

Illustration: Rhett Allain

In class you demonstrate situations that this model describes. You put a constant force on a low-friction cart and show that it accelerates. You remove forces from a cart after it’s pushed and show that the velocity doesn’t change (no acceleration). You toss a ball into the air and show that it slows as it rises, because of the gravitational force (downward acceleration). Through all of this, the students nod along happily.

Then you pose a question: A rocket is in deep space, where there is no gravitational force, and it fires its thrusters for 30 seconds to speed up. What happens when the engines are turned off? Try this in a physics class. I guarantee more than a few students will say the rocket slows down and stops because there are no forces acting on it … Take a breath.

Your teaching may not be the problem. The students are certainly not the problem. In fact, there may be no problem at all. This, in fact, is what the process of learning is all about. You just made it to level 3.

So what are some of the things that happen with a level 3 instructor? This time they revolve around what the students do, not what the instructor does. That’s the whole idea behind student-centered learning. Here are a few examples:

  • Speed-dating problem solving: This is way more awesome than it sounds. Students work in groups to solve problems, but they switch groups every five minutes. Trust me on this one.
  • Card sorts: Make cards with stuff on them—e.g., a bunch of kinematics graphs. Students work together to sort the cards into stacks. What stacks? They decide, and then they justify their choices. Great stuff.
  • Clicker questions: This one is easy. Students use some type of voting tool to answer interesting multiple-choice questions. Based on their responses, you can have some great in-class discussions.
  • Mistake game: Here students solve a physics problem in groups and write their solutions on the board. But they intentionally sneak an error into them. Other students try to find what’s wrong.

Notice that all of these activities center on the students doing things. This is the enlightened part—it’s the teacher realizing that learning isn’t something you can do to the students, it’s something they have to do themselves.

So education is easy then, right—instructors just needs to level up? Oh, if only it were that simple. Working at level 3 can be difficult and scary, because you’re giving up control, and there’s no guarantee it will turn out well. To be honest, sometimes it’s a disaster. But sometimes—surprisingly, more often than not—it’s amazing.

Is there a level 4? Maybe, but I’m not there yet.

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