I attended a business seminar this week at a Bay Area university. The students were in an exchange program from Germany. There were three instructors, all from the United States, although two were foreign born.
The instructors’ approaches to teaching differed so much that I spent this past week thinking about and analyzing the seminar. These differences have significance beyond teaching, so I offer my thoughts about them here.
The first instructor worked hard to engage students, ask them questions, and challenge them to think about the kinds of work they were doing. But he used densely-packed slides and did most if not all of the talking. Since the students were reluctant to speak, he pursued them with questions and grew more frustrated as the session went on. Afterward, in a passing comment, he said that he needed a nap.
The second instructor relied less on slides and more on story telling, relating his successes and failures as a technology entrepreneur. He even brought in samples of consumer products that his startup developed. The students responded favorably to this instructor, even setting aside their cellphones to listen. Yet, they still seemed unsure how his personal experience related to their own.
Rather than lecture, the third instructor did something different. He divided the students into groups and asked each group to answer questions based on the session topic of innovation. Each group had to create a process for arriving at an answer that all group members could agree with, answer the questions, and then identify a case or situation that exemplified what innovation meant for them.
What I discovered in comparing these approaches was a distinct movement away from force to flow. I mean that the pedagogy went from strong arming to story telling to listening.
In the first two approaches, learning focused on the instructor and took place as a result of content moving from the instructor to the students primarily in lecture format. Some of the interaction was awkward. However, in the third approach, movement occurred in the opposite direction from students to the instructor.
Don’t get me wrong. I would never advocate a learning process without content. Of course students need to learn content. But notice that the starting point is different. Not only that, but in the third approach students end up doing most of the work and still learn the core material.
Anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows that this point about work is not trivial. I remember one day asking myself why it felt as if I was doing more work than my students. The reason was that I was doing more work. It was exhausting, which is why I sympathized with the first instructor. After his session, I needed a nap, too, even though I had done nothing but sit there watching the reactions of students.
This reminds me of Chinese martial arts, which develop the inner strength of students, or their chi. Chi involves breathing and a natural flow of energy that is also controlled just as your breath can be controlled.
When you are in a state of chi, you do not work against objects or other people but move with them, because you actually move with yourself. Tai chi may be the best example of this slow, intentional movement flowing from and then returning to your body.
This kind of work is also exhausting but in a different way. Once developed into a habit, chi becomes a way of life, especially as it forms a habit of the mind, which is what martial arts are all about. After some time, you can talk about a spirituality.
There are lessons here for living as well as teaching. You can take any one of the approaches and apply it to life. And, while it is true that some people brag about grabbing life by the throat or the bull by the horns, the best approach, the one with long-lasting results, is the last one. You listen, redirect, and immerse yourself in the flow of breathing.
Try it. You’ll need fewer naps.