People are irrational creatures. As much as we might like to say that we always make rational decisions, this simply is not true. I’m in the middle of reading Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality, and I thought I would share some of my insights regarding how understanding people’s irrational tendencies can make us better teachers and learners.
Ariely conducted an experiment to test what he calls the IKEA effect. His hypothesis was that when people put in the effort to create things (e.g. when they put together their own IKEA furniture), they attribute more value to their creation. Without going into the details of the actual experiment, I can tell you that the IKEA effect indeed exists. Teachers can take advantage of this phenomenon by giving students more control over their learning, thus providing them with more ownership over the material.
In a separate study, Ariely also found that when people are required to spend more effort on a particular task, they attribute more value to the final product. However, if the task is tricky to a point that the person does not complete the product, then the attributed value drops to below that of an easier but finished product. This finding supports the idea that students learn best when in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). In other words, we should be aiming to provide students with tasks that are just outside the bounds of the students’ current abilities, but that can be completed with some guidance from the teacher. The amount of expected guidance from the teacher is important to consider, however, because as mentioned previously, students should still feel like they contributed significantly to the completion of the task.
These ideas about teaching are by no means revolutionary. However, I thought it was an interesting exercise to consider how people’s irrational behavior can explain why certain teaching techniques may be effective.
Whenever an individual or business decides that success has been attained, progress stops. —Thomas J. Watson
Back in high school, doing science demonstrations at elementary schools was my “thing.” It was what I felt comfortable doing, and people respected me for it. Since starting college, I’ve “graduated” to teaching computer science to middle school girls. It started out as a challenge since I wasn’t all too familiar with Scratch, but after three semesters, I no longer feel like I’m leaving my comfort zone.
In a way, I think I’ve settled, which is problematic. As a student, I have no problem taking challenging classes that really push me to my limits. We talk a lot about the importance of having a growth mindset as a student, but I never really thought about the importance of having a growth mindset as a teacher.
I used to think that I had to be a “perfect” teacher in order to deserve any credibility, which I now realize is simply not true. In fact, that ideology hurt me more than it helped me because I stopped thinking about how I could learn to teach more effectively.
All that being said, I have decided to take two big steps in my life. First off, I applied to be a Teaching Assistant (TA) for the mathematics for computer science class here at MIT. I’ve never been part of the teaching staff of a college-level course, so I think it will be a great opportunity for me to not only deepen my understanding of the material but also to practice explaining new concepts to a different audience.
I’m also really excited to announce that I’ll be spending January of 2017 in Jerusalem and Nazareth teaching computer science to high school students from Israel and Palestine through the MEET program. It will be challenging, but I know it will be an incredible journey that will once again put me outside of my comfort zone.
Here’s to making progress as a teacher!