How to Teach Stuff
January 23, 2006
Teaching is Like Acting - you're standing up there
on stage making us watch you: you'd better be worth it.
The closest professions to teaching are stage acting and stand-up
comedy. Learn how they do it.
Tell Us a Story - people understand stories better
than anything else; take advantage of it. You've got a conflict
between bad guys (problems) and good guys (concepts, theories
and techniques). Introduce the characters when they walk on
stage. Build up suspense through a clear story line. When the
good guys win, cheer them on! Foreshadow the future; review the past.
Keep the Sheep Moving in the Same Direction - a
lecture should have a clear and simple plot. Avoid anything that
distracts from this. Don't make too many points. Don't be
afraid to repeat yourself.
When You're Teaching a Subject, Don't Think About That Subject:
Think About Teaching - don't focus on subtleties that interest
you; focus on your audience. Do your preparation before
class. Be here now.
Illustrate the Movement of Thought - people learn
by example. Don't just provide an algorithm for solving a problem:
act out how your students could discover how to solve it!
Illustrating mistakes is just as important as showing how to
do things right.
Break Down the Barrier Between Stage and Audience -
ask them questions, get them to ask questions, get them to work
problems, and above all: don't let them fall asleep. If they
start yawning, throw a piece of chalk in their mouth. Learning
is not a passive business.
Keep Learning How to Teach Better - There are many
levels of skill. You've only reached the top when huge crowds batter
down the door to listen to you whenever you speak. If you stop
trying to be better, you'll get bored and your audience will too.
Teaching is more fun when you put more energy into it.
Teach the Students You Have - not the ones you wish
you had. If you get annoyed at students for being insufficiently
prepared, or not as smart as you, you'll become a grumpy old fart,
just like some of the lousy teachers you had.
This is also available in PDF format.
You may also enjoy my advice for the young
© 2006 John Baez