June 23, 2011

Challenging yourself as a teacher

© 2011, Coert Visser

The need to remain challenged
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi introduced the concept of flow. In flow people are fully involved in an activity which helps performance and support growth and a sense of fulfillment. Flow happens when people have clear goals and when there is good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one's own perceived skills. When tasks are structurally perceived as too easy people tend to bored or apathetic. When tasks are perceived as too hard they tend to feel stressed and anxious.

Is teaching the same subject year after year bound to become boring?
What does this mean for the situation in which you are a teacher? As a teacher you are likely to be more knowledgeable or skillful than your students. After years of teaching the subject the subject itself may start to feel like too easy and you risk starting to feel apathetic or bored. You may not be able to make the subject itself harder because that would make it too hard and thereby stressful for the students. Is there a solution?

Making chess challenging when playing against a weak player
As an intermezzo, let's look at a father teaching his young son to play chess. After the father had taught his son the basics of the game they started to play games. At first, the father deliberately played extremely weak to let his son win, in an attempt to motivate him. After some time, the father wanted to provide a bit more challenge to his son. But he realized he could not play at his normal ability because his son, as a beginning player, would then never be able to win any match. So he thought of a different approach. In chess, each of the pieces has their own point value. For instance a rook is worth 5 points, a knight is worth 3 points. Without saying it to his son, the father gave himself the extra task of keeping a balance throughout the game. Whenever his son captured a piece worth 3 points, he had then to do the same and capture another piece worth 3 points back. This extra task made the game surprisingly hard again for the father who was genuinely challenged. Chess became perhaps equally challenging for both players who were of very different skill levels. This is just a simple example of how people may often regulate the complexity of their tasks themselves. Many situations offer endless opportunities for adding complexity to the task at hand.

Adding challenge to your task as a teacher in a way that benefits both you and your students
Experienced teachers can benefit from this principle so that their work never has to become boring. If you teach a subject which in itself is rather easy for you, you may add complexity in a way which is both useful for you and for your students. Here is an example. Mark Lepper and Maria Woolverton have studied highly effective tutors. One thing they found was that:
These tutors often manage to avoid ever saying explicitly that the student has made an error. Rather, in the face of an incorrect problem step or a mistaken answer to a question, these tutors are likely to pose a question that indirectly implies the existence of some error and, sometimes, the location of that error. Their goal is to prompt students into retracing their own steps and "catching" their own errors, while avoiding the negative motivational consequences of pointing explicitly to mistakes and failures on the part of the students.
Giving yourself the extra task of 1) not saying what the student has done wrong but 2) instead asking subtle questions which imply some error and 3) inviting the student to retrace his or her steps and catch their own error and improve their solution can make teaching surprisingly challenging no matter how easy the subject matter itself may be to you. If you try it I predict you won't be bored.


  1. Good points. My 2 cents worth: When I teach (about 15-20 days a year to business professionals), I remember that every class is different and unique, and so too is every learner. That they each learn in different ways. That they come loaded with knowledge and experience and that they are part of the learning experience.
    Hence, there are no wrong answers, just opportunities to learn more.
    Also, the learners need to have their individual learning goals and be accountable for their learning, particularly, how they will use the learning.
    I always open the session with a scaling exercise in which the students express their existing knowledge and skills on the subject and share that knowledge with the group.
    That always gives me the challenge of helping them become even better at what they can do with the 'new' knowledge.

  2. Hi Alan, thanks. I agree, of course much more can be said about effective teaching, like some of the things you mention. Here are my two cents about right or wrong. I personally think it is useful to and justified with the concept of error (so I do answers can be right or wrong). I am not specifically thinking about teaching conversation skills. But take for instance math. Some answers are wrong. In any context in which we teach we can define concepts and relationships between concepts. Against the frame of reference of those definitions things can be right or wrong. For instance, if a music teacher asks a student to play a C-chord and the student plays the notes B-D-F I think it is wiser and more honest to say the answer is wrong than to say that it is right.

  3. Yup, where there are rules and standards that have to be met, e.g., how to fly a passenger plane, getting it right/wrong is significant. In schools, kids need to learn a load of right/wrong subjects.
    When we teach soft skills like leadership, I still think there's room for right/wrong, but many elements of leadership begin with...it all depends, i.e., there are few clear right/wrong answers.
    Back to flying a plane - when the roof came off a 737 flying to Hawaii some years ago, the pilot was able to land the aircraft. All the tests afterwards said the plane was totally un-flyable in that condition. How did the pilot learn what to do since the rule book said, your aircraft is no longer flyable.
    Also, a famous jazz / blues pianist (wish I could remember his name) always insisted that the piano he would play that night should not be tuned - he want to play with it in the 'wrong' condition.
    Maybe I'm arguing that knowing what's right/wrong helps people improvise.
    Where I get stuck is rules based learning that works for a certain group in the class - they pass exams regardless. But, do we know they learned anything and can they do something with it. I once worked with a person who got straight A's in everything at university, but was terrible at her job. Really terrible.
    Finally, it seems that when we have to say 'no' to the student's answer, we have to think creatively about how we say it to that particular person. When someone says something silly in one of my classes, I always put it out to the group for their perspective.
    Anyway, I'm probably drifting off-topic now.. It's both and world.

  4. thanks Alan, interesting. I especially interested in how improvisation may be encouraged by introducing wrongness into the equation. I like this and I like to use it myself. It is wonderful

  5. To develop a professional and leadership attitude in our personality. We should take positive steps and take challenges to improve our performance. In every professional field, we need some challenges and skills and this article perfectly describe some essential facts about teachers challenges and responsibilities. For an effective career in teaching, we should follow these instructions present in this article. Thanks for such a wonderful post.
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