Trekking in class

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!


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