Improving the Classroom in Five Easy Steps

Approach Teaching as a Devotion

The quality of an instructor’s presence has more impact on the learning environment than any other single factor. Love what you do, acknowledge the potentially profound role you play in a learner’s life. Get past the politics and the drudgery and the unpaid hours. Develop and bring into the classroom your sense of the sacred trust of learning. It does change the world.

Lead From Desire

The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that “the intelligence must be led by desire.” At heart, learning is an emotional endeavor. In turn, good instruction engages our feelings and sympathies and dreams. The most effective teachers and facilitators are those who openly express and evoke such feelings. Their passion — for the subject, for the interactions — is infectious. This is why most dedicated instructors credit a great teacher in their own past as a primary inspiration.

Lead From Behind

Borrowing a phrase from Gandhi, a good leader leads from behind. Diminish your own authority, create collaborative projects, allow learners to teach each other. A good instructor displays precisely the same interpersonal skills as a good leader. Both lead from behind, and with the imagination as a foundational tool.

Do What You Love

The content of any course you teach should reflect your own interests. Always teach courses that have been customized to your own style and approach. Part of this customization involves bringing to the learning environment activities and practices that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the subject but which interest you greatly. If you like skateboarding or badminton or wood-turning, find a way to bring these into your teaching. They will imprint the learning environment with your own energy and passion.

Fight the Inertia of Seats

Learners sitting in chairs, with an instructor talking at the front, is the worst way to impart anything useful. Yet everyone does it (me included, sometimes). But if you’ve ever learned to play the piano, or windsurf, or program in HTML, or become accomplished at any task requiring a complex set of skills, you will know that the most effective learning derives from casting about, from pacing, from a bodily immersion in the activity. In a classroom, slouching in chairs and talking for any length of time over about 30 minutes is a recipe for somnolence. Try something new: get learners out of the classroom, into the street or the coffee shop or the park. Walk, play, experiment, collaborate. Cook a meal together. Build a crazy, whimsical structure. Turn your subject into a dance, or a play, or a comedy. Make the subject what it should be: immensely interesting.