The Lifelong Teacher

As a rising junior in high school, I took a course at Columbia University’s pre-college program called “Intensive Seminars in Modern Chemistry.” As it turned out, the seminars were actually pretty casual and the chemistry was like ten years old, so it didn’t really live up to its name. It was your standard introductory lab course: of the seven or eight experiments, I only remember the one where we made soap, and that’s just because it burned the shit out of me. The rest were pretty mundane.

The professor, though, was one of those guys who could have been teaching us how to collate paper and somehow keep us not only interested but inspired. He was so good he had to hold office hours in a classroom, and this was without exams, papers, or grades. Nobody went in with an agenda; half the kids didn’t even have questions. They showed up because they knew if they didn’t they might miss something important; it would be like skipping a dinner with Da Vinci because you didn’t like the restaurant.

It wasn’t that he was this world-shaking presence, but that he so effortlessly tested the edges of our intellect; he was the kind of guy who answered questions with better questions. In that sense, he was a great teacher, one of the best I’ve ever had. And he didn’t really do anything flashy or grandiose. In fact, the things he did do, like urge us to ask more questions or point us to the right people, were quite simple. The most memorable moment of the class actually seemed trivial at the time:

One morning, I was sort of lazily leaning my head on a lab bench, looking cross-eyed at an odd set of tubes a few feet away, when he approached.

“Do you know how that thing works?” he said.
I tried to look awake. “No, not really. I imagine there’s some kind of pressure thing going on.”
He laughed. “Sort of. It’s called a Venturi tube, but that doesn’t really matter. Here’s what it does.” He explained how the water got from one end to the other, and how all the spigots, aspirators, and bowls interacted.
“So you see now?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s pretty simple.” He walked away, pleased, and I got back to work.

About twenty minutes later, just as kids were starting to wrap up, he went to the middle of the room and got everyone’s attention. He told them that I was going to explain how the funny-looking apparatus on the middle bench worked. He seemed quite confident.

I wasn’t, despite having just had the whole thing described in lucid detail. But I gave it a shot.

“So it’s called a Venturi tube. Basically the pressure differential.. so I know it has something to do with the differential between these two things, and these little guys constrict the flow here, but honestly I couldn’t really tell you much more than that…”

Of course, that was his point. You immediately discover exactly what you know when you try to teach it to someone else. Clearly I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and the professor basically chose the best way of pointing it out.

The problem is that what he did is so rare. No one really teaches you how to teach, or encourages you to try. It’s a skill seemingly reserved for Ph.D.’s who need to keep their positions and grant money, or the less intelligent idealists who get a teaching certificate and go K-12. Unlike its counterpart “the lifelong learner,” “the lifelong teacher” is a low-paying career, not an admirable avocation.

That’s stupid. For one, casually trying to explain things to other people is the best way to test yourself; if your “student” looks puzzled, you’re probably missing some details, or at least can’t communicate them. So you go back to your books, or problem set, or professor, and you ask some more questions and learn what you can. Rinse and repeat.

By the end of the process you not only know the stuff, but you know you know the stuff. And in my opinion, you’re more sure of it than if you got an A on some exam. To support that claim, I could demonstrate a lot of times where I got As but didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Now the side effect, of course, is that while reinforcing your understanding, and learning how to share it properly (which will no doubt pay dividends; for instance, “sales” is just teaching a customer about your product), there’s also the kid sitting across the table from you who ideally figures out whatever it is you struggled to explain. That, to me, is a pretty good deal.

And I suppose that’s what Einstein was talking about when he said:

“If I give you a pfennig, you will be one pfennig richer and I’ll be one pfennig poorer. But if I give you an idea, you will have a new idea, but I shall still have it, too.”

Addendum: I recently discovered that our professor, while teaching the course, was working on a paper entitled “Design, implementation, and evaluation of two laboratory course constructivist learning environments.” From the abstract:

This study is concerned with the design, implementation, and evaluation of two student-centered, constructivist undergraduate laboratory courses: the intensive general chemistry laboratory course, a first-year course, and the physical chemistry laboratory course, a fourth-year course for chemistry majors.

The courses’ activities were divided into training and educating blocks according to their cognitive and epistemological content; i.e., the training block activities consisted of structured experiments based on laboratory manuals, which developed specific curricular skills; the educating block consisted of problem-based-learning contextual episodic experiences in the form of case studies, integrative, and independent projects aimed at broadening the students’ perspectives and metacognitive abilities.

The main goal of the proposed curricular change was to motivate the first-year students to major in chemistry, and once motivated to sustain the interest of declared majors through the undergraduate experience into the fourth year to build stronger graduate programs in chemistry.

So in a sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy role-reversal, my classmates and I were under the impression we were doing a bunch of experiments when in fact we were the subjects of a much larger study, one designed to teach us well.

Looks like it worked.




Tessa Pauly Jul 11th, 2007 at 12:30 pm

Hey James! Well written and very nice of you to take the time to remember a great teacher. Our education is the deal of a lifetime, and so many of us (myself included) take it for granted. You definitely gave me some food for thought.
Hope the summer is going well!
- Tessa