Teaching Philosophy

February 19, 2004

I think it is more important to teach in a scholarly way, than to be a scholar who teaches. Teaching must imbibe critical thinking, much less the mere transmission of facts. It marks the difference between scholarly learning and information acquisition.

Teaching and research are related. I have found that teaching topics different from my area of research has led to novel research, since it gives pause for reflection on new questions. It is also easy to teach one’s own research in a scholarly way. Such teaching is always emotionally charged, richer in experience, better informed, and more critical. I believe that good researchers make good scholarly teachers, and an active research program is essential to creative teaching.

I view teaching as a process of joint responsibility of teacher and students. Hence, I prefer the Socratic method over the lecture approach in the classroom. It calls for the students to take responsibility for discussion and their own learning. They need to prepare before class, and it raises questions in class, leaving many unanswered, so that thinking does not stop asked once class is over. The two-way Socratic form fosters retention of ideas, while the one-way lecture may not.

Teaching to think is more important than teaching to know. Facts change, and knowledge becomes obsolete; however, thought process is adaptable. I try very hard to make sure that my class plans are directed towards “How we should think about today’s topic” versus “What is there to know about the topic.” Students have responded well to this.

I try to teach the “whole” person, and have fun doing it. In the Socratic approach, you cannot avoid the student’s biases, and other influences, and this is not a disadvantage. Students, via discussion, often connect the class to other courses, and one must be careful not to circumscribe the discussion by overly specifying the boundaries. Moreover, it is more fun, and the feeling of freedom the students have is its own reward.

I tell my students not to be afraid to make mistakes in class. I want them to understand that I give high grades for class participation when someone takes a risk and makes a mistake. There is tremendous learning for all from one person’s misconceptions. It helps even more when they point out my mistakes.

Finally, I like to set demanding standards for the courses I teach. My courses are designed to be challenging in the level of course material and thought process. I teach to the upper portion of the class, and believe that the weaker students will work harder and improve their performance. Students rise to the expectation levels we set for them. I prefer to teach rigorously, and to foster thinking and technique. I believe this approach separates the best students from the others, while increasing the number of good students.


Trekking in class

February 1, 2004

A funny thing happened in class the other day – again.

It was one of those “special” classes I often end up teaching when I realize that many students are missing some basic training that is holding them back. I decided to teach a “software” class – which in business schools is better titled as “All you can do with spreadsheets, but were never forced to do.” This involved various things like using goal-seek and solver, matrix inversions to solve problems, web data extraction and analysis, and on and on and on. I had asked my students to bring their laptops to class if possible and to work along with me. And to make the learning concrete I revisted and solved problems we had already seen earlier in the course.

I am sure it was hard to follow along – these things are never easy. Students always find it hard to work with material that they have been exposed to in only a limited way in the past. Its not their fault, its the way we set them up with lower expectations. We make them believe that if they have not seen something before, and the new learning is hard, then its not really “expected” of them anyway. If a topic is hard, there must be something wrong with the curriculum. Education is so easy, self-esteem is cheap.

And I made that mistake – again – the one you all know we make! I said that it was better for everyone to pay attention and really understand, and not to take notes, and that they could do so because I was not going to make them test on it. Big mistake.

For those of you who trek in the woods, there is often that moment when you hear a rustle in the bushes, and you know that a sentient being has quietly crept away. And you respect that – every living being has to exercise the right of self-determination. Now, teaching an ad-hoc class (on which no test will depend) is a little like that. There is a time in every student’s life when they have to creep away. And so it was that day in class! A turn to the board, a light rustling sound, and one more student – gone! By rough estimate I lost 40% of my class that day.

I wonder how many will come back.

But, this is not a bad thing. After that point when the attrition rate slows to a crawl, and you are left with the “truly curious” folks, class is utopian. Simple joys, happy faces, eager learners. It is terrific to know that I have 60% in a class – that is a big number. I could spend hours and hours with them.

To be honest, when I was in school (from high to post-grad) I must freely admit I was in the 40% group. But I never left class, I just slept right there. And I think I learnt a lot through my drowsy haze. So, if there is any advice to give, here it is: do not check out, just take a nap.

I love class, like a trek in the woods!