Archive for January, 2012

Learning with a Reason

Like many students, I learn best when I understand the reason for what I’m learning, or am really engaged and curious about how I can achieve a vision of my own. This goes back as far as I can remember, but one example has always stuck in my mind, is my grade 10 math class.

I’ve never been a math whiz. Yes, when Charles Babbage passed away, he took the math gene with him, I think. So generally my math grades were average and my commitment to learning more about math was average. In previous math classes, it seemed every time I asked WHY, a teacher’s answer came in one of two flavors:

a) Because that’s how it’s done

or

b) Because that’s the answer at the back of the book

Neither were satisfactory responses to me then – or now. In retrospect, I think that’s one of the things that made me a good teacher later in life. I wouldn’t settle for those lame responses. I wouldn’t give them to students.

Then one day in Grade 10 math, we were doing a lesson on statistics. I didn’t see much use for them or the lesson and was probably getting ready to tune out. Something however, made me ask my teacher (Mr. Geoff Kavanaugh. Yes I still remember his name), “What’s the point? How will this be useful to me? Why are we learning this?”

And a magical thing happened.

He answered my question.

Not with “because” or by pointing to the answer section of the text book. He answered it by telling me what could be done with statistics, the kinds of jobs and information and understanding that could be gained by using statistics. And he did this without being defensive, or preachy, or talking down to me, or by being vaguely dismissive (as many math teachers had been to me in the past).

Now I’ll be honest; I did not suddenly become a math whiz. To this day, I still struggle with higher math concepts. But I certainly retained more about statistics than I would have. The fact that this teacher took the time to explain the why, made a huge impact to my attentiveness in class. I respected him for truly taking the time to respond intelligently to my questions. I wanted to listen more closely, even if I didn’t “get it” at the time. And I knew that if I had an honest beef with the topic, I could ask him a question and get a solid, useful answer. He is one of a select few teachers that made a difference to me as a life-long learner, and as a teacher.

As teachers, we’re often tasked with trying to communicate intricate or complex concepts to novices. This is just as true in Higher Ed as it is in K-12. And it’s more pervasive now than it was back when I was in Grade 10, or even when I was in college!

Another technique I would use in class is what I call the “Ripple Effect”. In an attempt to keep students on task, open-minded and motivated to learn, I’d tell them a couple short anecdotes about my life, and how I got to where I was, professionally. I would use this in my first year photojournalism courses a couple times. There’s nothing more challenging than trying to teach photography to a room full of prospective “writers”. They didn’t sign on to be photogs; they enrolled so they could be writers, after all.

Well, the route to being a writer, or reporter, (or author or teacher or photographer or pick a career) can be a pretty twisty path. And I take a few minutes and explain the chain of events that led me to becoming a professional photographer – a career I loved but never planned on. Without that career as a commercial photographer, I would never have been asked by my former college photography instructor to be a guest speaker in his classes. This later led to a part time teaching position at Centennial, which lasted for 20+ years.

Later in the semester, when the topic of social media came up, I’d give an example of  the importance of online branding, using myself as the case study. I am 100% positive that had I not started writing online articles, for example, I would never have been approached by Lynda.com or Peachpit Press or Adobe to do work for them.

In short, you often can’t predict what skill you will need, and hence what niche you can fill to get yourself in the door. My layout skills from J-School led me to my first job in a photo studio. And I never actually did any layout work in that job. I became one of the company’s staff photographers! But that skill in layout was what got me the job interview.

I’m sure that many teachers do this already, but in case you’re not, take those few minutes early in a lesson to explain the why. Do your best (as tempting as it is sometimes, considering the massive amount of material we are expected to teach), to avoid the “because” answer. Students will respect the time you take to do so.

It doesn’t take long and it doesn’t have to happen with every lesson, but take it from me, it can truly be life-changing, when we know “why” we’re learning something.

Digital literacy = employment readiness

In mid-December, just before I headed out to the Adobe World Wide Sales Conference, I was invited by my ad students and the coordinator of the Centennial College Advertising program to their portfolio review day. I accepted right away; I really wanted to see how much they had grown as digital professionals. Continue reading…