Teaching grab bag

The best of internet, just for you:

What to teach? Great post about the arbitrary nature of course / textbook content. Bonus that the author references her course’s own learning outcomes! Looking at the learning outcomes is a great guide when you are thinking about how to mix things up with activities and content. While throwing out the textbook may not be for you, thinking about what you could do in doing without the usual suspects is a great little experiment. Plus–as she points out–the ease and speed of internet research easily allows students and instructors to focus on the interesting, puzzling, and often-overlooked ideas, events, and inventions.

Second, check out the non-profit Khan Academy. Instructional videos from a trusted source, widely used and widely reviewed The Khan academy started when the founder, a former hedge fund manager with degrees from MIT and Harvard, began helping his cousin with math by posting his own videos online. Not all videos are college-level (there’s a fair amount of developmental math, arithmetic, and test prep), but you can also find extensive videos on specific art works (for example, the Bayeux Tapestry, O’Keeffe’s The Lawrence Tree, and Gerhard Richter’s September), biology topics (Photosynthesis: Calvin Cycle, Saltatory Conduction in Neurons, and Cytotoxic T Cells – just to name a few), and topics in organic chemistry, calculus, etc. The videos vary in length; the ones I’ve seen ranged from 6 – 14 minutes. The history offerings are a little thin, and there’s not much in foreign language, social sciences, or literature. However, if there’s an appropriate video on a topic covered in one of your courses, this seems like a great way to get discussion started.

What to do when the best laid plans go awry. On those days when technology conspires to sink a great lecture or activity, what do to do (check the comments on the article). Other than not panicking and taking a few deep breaths, do you have a favorite lifesaver trick for a technology mishap? Please enlighten us in the comments!

When all else fails (or, always). Humor. In the classroom. Do you script your jokes into your lecture or your slides? Go for something off the cuff? Just share a funny comic? Apparently, there are 22 different kinds of humor used in educational settings—no joke (sorry, I couldn’t resist!). The bottom line? Humor done right is good: it creates a relaxing classroom environment and keeps students’ attention. But trying too hard or making offensive jokes? Not funny.

For extra credit. Not a believer in extra credit? Happy to hand it out to students doing extra work? For a round-up of a recent discussion on this topic, there’s this article – and the one referenced in that piece that started the controversy. As the semester draws to a close, extra credit certainly becomes a more pressing topic in the minds of some students. But, really, I just want to share with you this story of a sixth grader making two popular apps (plus giving a pretty popular TEDx talk). He did this just by playing with the iPhone software development kit. Someone, somewhere, give this kid–and his parents and teachers–some extra credit! I’m a total sucker for these stories of students inventing apps, and while the Justin Bieber Whac-A-Mole game and the Earth Fortune-teller app might not have a ton of educational merit, his conclusions are worth considering: “These days, students know a little bit more than teachers [about] technology . . . Educators should recognize this resource and make good use of it.” So, here’s your extra credit question for the comments: how do you make use of your students’ technological capacities?


(You probably know where this is going, right? But, first, a little digression … .)

This evening I was reading an article by Atul Gawande about improving doctors’ performance. Gawande, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, is a surgeon who is also a gifted writer and an amazing observer of human behavior and complex systems. I love his articles and books about the ways in which medical outcomes can be improved by seemingly simple changes related to checklists, bandages, handwashing, continuing medical education and the like. If you’re unfamiliar with his work and looking for a captivating non-fiction read, check him out. Really. You won’t regret it.

Gawande’s most recent piece was about mid-career doctors and how these individuals could avoid “performance plateaus” and continue to become ever-better physicians. He writes:

Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology. We await every new cancer drug as if it will be our salvation. We dream of personalized genomics, vaccines against heart disease, and the unfathomed efficiencies from information technology … . But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology. We have devoted disastrously little attention to fostering those abilities.

It’s about use. And not just use, but better, smarter, wiser more resourceful use. Technology alone is nothing without constantly refined vision and skill.

Et voila.

The clip is old (and the quality is not amazing), but Jobs’ comments about value, relevance, and passion speak volumes about helping people use technology and the transformative purpose for such use.