The Sept. 11 tragedy was, for my students at Wake Forest University, a life-changing
event. For a month following it, the American media covered little else. On
the evening of the 11th, our college community gathered to hear university president
Tom Hearn’s magnificent, thoughtful reflections about the incident and
our response. His remarks were subsequently published in our newspaper, in the
NCAA News and on our university Web site.
Hearn’s reflections upon a totally absorbing incident provided a “teachable
moment,” an instant when all students were focused upon a topic that could
be connected to the ethical traditions, economic concepts, and lifetime skills
that are the core of my teaching. Even though only 10 percent of my students
attended the convocation, all had access to Hearn’s remarks on the Web
site. I asked them to share their personal reactions, to identify what made
Hearn’s speech so effective and how the same principles might be used in
their own speeches, and to link the economic consequences of the tragedy with
the concepts we were studying. Assignments were due in 48 hours. All completed
one-page essays were made available at our course Web site to all members of
the class. Judging by the quality of the essays and subsequent class discussion,
this was this semester’s most effective activity.
Our jobs as teacher-coaches are easier when we can build on topics and concepts
that our students know and care about. When something—this tragedy, sports,
music, a campus controversy—already has their attention, there is that
magical “teachable moment.” The quickest and most enduring learning
starts from the known and then connects with the to-be-learned: for example,
the importance of bending one’s knees when hitting a tennis forehand connects
with bending one’s knees when swinging a golf club. Likewise, the rhythmic
(Da-Da-Da-DAAA) opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
assumes significance when it is repeated in subsequent movements.
For educators, it is often tempting to use examples from the world we know
best, to teach with the material we like most, to present material in the language
that is most familiar to us. This is not all bad. Students need to be exposed
to different learning methods, to develop new interests, and certainly to become
familiar with previously unfamiliar subject matter. In my experience, however,
the most effective teaching starts with “training wheels.” If I can
use multimedia in my presentations, even though it is not my preferred medium,
most students seem to be able to focus more fully upon the subject matter. If
I can draw examples from current events, sports or local news, students are
more likely to be able to repeat them two weeks later. By limiting the domains
that are unfamiliar to students, I believe they can focus more fully upon the
unfamiliar and deepen their learning.
Thank goodness for the Internet! As never before, we can connect our students
to new material that matches their individual passions. It is now easier for
me to find material and presentations in alternate media that will motivate
students. Students can, in turn, draw upon specialized analyses, up-to-date
statistics, and matching graphics to elaborate upon a newly learned idea with
examples they know and love.
Also, via e-mail, we can guide and respond to students according to their individual
passions and preferences. One size d'es not need to fit all. We can customize.
It isn’t necessary to co-opt the time of classmates during class or to
have students wait their turn in large clusters after class.
D'es it surprise anyone to learn that even though I have little expertise in
either the NCAA or in basketball, because of search engines and resources available
on the Internet, I am teaching a course this semester titled, “The Economists’
Way of Thinking About NCAA Basketball”?
David Brown (email@example.com) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.