Sunday, September 18, 2005

Time Management

Last Wednesday, Gordon had me direct part of the ASE 2 class. It was an exercise to demonstrate to the students the importance of questions-- that if the students aren't asking questions, they don't understand. And that there's a procedure to answering questions well:

1. Restate the question. Make sure that the question you heard is the question that was asked. Taking the time to be sure you understood the question is faster and more efficient than is answering the wrong question.

2. After giving the answer, verify that the class understands, and that the question has been adequately answered. If not, then change tactics: try explaining the material in a different way. A quick "does that answer your question?" can do a world of good.

I broke the class up into pairs and sat them back-to-back. One person in each pair was given a small piece of paper with a diagram drawn on it. The other partner had a blank sheet of paper. The goal was for the "teacher" to explain to the "student" how to draw the picture, without the aid of visuals.

They struggled mightily with this. One group just couldn't get it. Another I heard doing great-- and the "student" was consistently asking detailed questions of the "teacher," and the teacher was restating each piece of instructions. The third group was communicating just about as carefully as the second group, but there had been a miscommunication at the beginning-- the student drew a right triangle at the center, instead of an iscoseles. So even though the details were accurate, the big picture was so wrong that the two drawings ended up looking totally different from each other.

Then we had them look at the drawings and the originals, and they talked about what strategies had worked, what hadn't-- in general it just reinforced that, in order for information to be conveyed accurately, the student has to ask constant questions and the teacher has to repeat the information several ways. Partners switched, were given a different drawing to teach, and with a better understanding of what was going on, the second round of drawings were considerably better. Two teams switched from geometrical description (a forty-five degree angle at the midpoint, etc) to geographical ("draw a line going east from the top of the triangle").

The lesson was a success-- it was a fun and very concrete reinforcement of what we'd been trying to teach them, namely that communication is always a two-way process.

But I managed the time badly. Gordon's very flexible in that class-- the most important thing, he believes, is that the students share their experiences and ideas and get help from one another. Since they're actually teaching undergraduates, the most valuable thing they can get out of the class is concrete feedback on difficulties that are arising in their classes. We often scrap huge parts of the lesson plans, because there are other things more valuable to the students.

However, this is not an excuse for inefficiency. If I'd cut the drawing-part of the exercise a bit shorter, we'd have had more time to discuss communication. It's not necessary that they actually finish a drawing-- just that they go at it long enough to see what communication strategies are effective. One group, both times, finished their drawing well before the others and spent several minutes just waiting. This isn't ideal. However, they were all very into the exercise-- it's fun!-- and reluctant to stop before finishing. I was also reluctant to interrupt communication.

The way I got them to wrap things up was to approach each group separately with a one-minute warning. I would watch each pair, wait until they reached a pause, and then interject with my warning. Likewise, when I told them to finish, I approached each group individually.

I think it would have been more effective to announce all at once. To say at the start, "You have ten minutes to do this. I will warn you when there's just a minute left." And then give a one-minute warning to everyone at the same time, regardless of whether I was interrupting an important bit of communication. Likewise, to cut them all off abruptly would have been preferable. The purpose was not the completion of the exercise, but rather the information to be gleaned from it.


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