Nick: Old Habits Die Hard

Anyone who has children knows that telling them once is not enough, even if you explain things to them and answer all of the many times they ask “Why?”. In fact, you often find yourself saying things you would never have thought any person anywhere would have to say. I’m talking about things like “Toes do not go in your drinks” and “You need to keep your pants on at the grocery store”. This works as a great analogue for how lecturing about a topic for a few minutes will not really foster a transformative experience. A lot has been written about how to help students break their old habits, but what I want to talk about for a little bit is how we as faculty often need to break some of our old habits. Sometimes we need to be told the same thing many times before it really sinks in.

The particular instance that brought these ideas to my mind was when a few trusted colleagues started chuckling as I was lamenting how many times each semester I have to give students a pep-talk and remind them about the reasons we are doing things differently than they are accustomed to. The reason they were laughing is that they had to give me the same kind of pep-talk about this time in the semester several times in the past year. One of them had already talked to me about this challenge this semester. The meta-ness of needing a reminder about why it’s reasonable and necessary to give students reminders struck me as something to write about.

Of course this is not the only time that I have found old habits of teaching hard to break. One of the biggest changes, but happened quite slowly over the course of the past decade for me, is the realization that we need to be explicit to our students in what we are trying to do. For some people, this means writing out all the algebra steps in a problem, but lately, I have found that it means that modeling behavior is not enough. I will go a step further and say that modeling the behavior that I want in students is impossible. I can’t model a transformative experience because that is a ridiculous thing to try to do in hour long chunks a couple times a week. I can’t model how to dissect my thoughts internally. I usually couch this discussion to students by the following analogy: “I can’t teach you how to be clever. I can be clever in front of you, and I can show you how I incorporate other people’s ideas to seem even more clever. But I just don’t know how to teach you to be clever.” Expecting others to pick up what is going on will not reliably work. It will work for some, but it will not reliably work.

One of the best things that my incorporation of inquiry based methods has done for me is the normalization of thinking deeply about what I am doing in the classroom. Meaningful change for me does not come in the form of radical changes. I am far too much a creature of habit. I am incredibly jealous of my wife and son because they have made significant changes, in which they did not later regress, by acting quickly. I know that the most effective way for me to change something is to incorporate the evolution I want into my habits and routines. The preparation needed to use inquiry based methods has incorporated this deep thinking of why I do particular actions into my daily/weekly routine.

When talking to students about the importance of effective communication, I often ask
“How great or useful is an idea if you are the only one who understands it?” As someone who loves to travel and give math talks, I understand the importance of tailoring your argument to your audience. I often ask myself how convincing an argument am I making to my students? Too often I rest on the old belief that students should listen to my ideas on the importance of modifying their perspective or attitude because my name is on the syllabus or because I am at the front of the room. Right now, I feel like I  am persuasive to my junior levels students, and not just because I’m the professor. One of my greatest struggles right now is finding a convincing argument for my freshmen students that would be just as persuasive if I wasn’t the person who puts their final grades into the computer.

As always, I welcome your feedback and ideas in the comment section or by email at longne at sfasu dot edu.