Do you really remember what it was like to not know your subject-area?

Is it even possible to step back and see your class through the eyes of someone that knows nothing about what you’re teaching?  The longer you teach, or have experience with your subject, the farther you move away from this novice viewpoint.  Keep reading to see why it’s important to do that and what happened when I did it.

I spent some time yesterday helping my daughter’s kindergarten teacher get onto facebook.  Last Friday I helped her create a classroom webpage.  She’s very “technology-phobic” and really wants to start using it but just doesn’t know where to begin.

While helping her learn facebook I was once again reminded of something I try to keep in mind often while teaching, planning a class, writing, etc.  That I have used facebook so often and so long that I truly forgot what it was like not to know how to navigate within the site, what the difference was between a “wall post” and a “status” and who can see what, etc.

I first realized this when I was teaching chemistry after about 5 years.  My students liked me and enjoyed being in my class…but they did not feel the same way about the subject.  I was constantly being asked “when am I ever going to need this?”

As I learned more about cognition I realized that students were not asking that question, not usually anyway, to be flippant teenagers.  Our brains need a reason to learn something.  So what kinds of reasons did I give them?  “You’ll need it for stoichiometry”, “You’ll need it for the next chapter”, “If you ever take another chemisty class you’ll learn about.”  Obviously these were not the answers that their brains were looking for.

My lightbulb moment was when I realized that the order I taught my subject in made perfect sense to me – I know the whole story.  I know where we’ll end up and I know the smaller skills or concepts that they’ll need to progress from beginning to end.  I was teaching each skill or concept in the best ways that I could – but I wasn’t able to show them why they needed each of those skills or concepts because they just didn’t know the whole story like I did.

But I was teaching in a very established sequence…how could something so established not be the best way?  There’s a few different schools of thought on sequence in chemistry – some start with atomic theory and others leave it until later – but there are a couple of well established sequences that people (and therefore almost all textbooks) follow and I was following one of them.

I felt like if I shook up the order that I wouldn’t be doing it “right.”  But guess what…the students don’t know what the “right” order is and they’ll NEVER know if you go in a different order!  They don’t know what concepts are customarily grouped together into a chapter.  They don’t know what order the chapters should go in.

The real reason that I was struggling to show my students the relevance of my course was that I had forgotten what it was like to not know the whole picture.

So I stepped back and looked at all my concepts and skills and began rearranging them.  I put them in groups based on a problem, project or product to study.  It wasn’t easy.  It’s a massive jigsaw puzzle.  I had to make sure that some concepts came before others, as obviously they need the foundations first.  But I managed to completely reorganize the course, keeping prerequisite concepts before those that use them, and have each chapter teach only the skills and concepts to understand things such as antacids, airbags, glow in the dark, soap, sports drinks, etc.

I used it with my students and began telling other teachers about the amazing results in my classroom (including students using my text being more interested in chemistry at the end of the year and students with the same teachers using a traditional text being less interested in chemistry by the end of the year!).  Soon other teachers wanted to use it and it eventually became a published textbook (Discovering Chemistry You Need to Know published by Kendall Hunt).

The point of this blog post wasn’t to point you towards my textbook’s website (although you’re more than welcome to check it out if you so choose).  The point was to ask you, fellow teachers, what would you change about your courses if you stepped back and truly was able to see the class through the eyes of someone that really doesn’t know anything about what you’re teaching?

When I present seminars or workshops about my textbook at pre-adoption meetings or teaching conferences, I’m met with a few teachers that are resistant.  There’s a variety of reasons for this, but one of them is that it’s the “wrong” order.  They often begin immediately looking for specific concepts throughout the book and deciding to jump from chapter to chapter throughout the book to turn it into the same sequence that I worked so hard to get it out of.  They just can’t break that sequence.  It is absolutely amazing to me the work someone will go through to re-order a thematic book back into a traditional book when they’re faced with it as what they have to teach out of.  But they do it.

If they could just look at the two options through the eyes of a student – someone that knows nothing about the way it’s “supposed to be taught” I think they’d have a much different view!

So whether you’re teaching a friend to use a technology new to them that you use so easily and familiarly that you can’t even imagine not knowing how to use it, or whether you’re planning the sequence and instruction of your course…try to remember what it’s like to not know anything about where you’re headed!

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