Someone once said that anyone who visited a typical high school classroom would come to the conclusion that “teachers work very hard, and their students watch them work very hard.” When I first heard this, I remember thinking that it was both entirely true and entirely messed up. In fact, I think that it simultaneously points at two of the most important issues in our classrooms today: teachers work themselves to exhaustion, while students spend too much time engaged in passive, rather than active, learning activities.
There is something fundamentally flawed about the idea that one can learn to do anything of importance by simply watching someone else do it. You don’t learn to play basketball by watching someone else play, and you don’t learn to do math by watching someone else solve math problems. You have to pick up your pencil (or your basketball) and try it yourself, and the more time you spend actively engaged in that activity, the better you’re going to get.
One of the things I like about using instructional videos in my classroom is that it addresses both of these problems at the same time. When I take a 30-minute lecture and put it in a 10-minute video, I save myself 30 minutes of exhausting (and some might say unnecessary) work every time I have to present that material. And since I’m able to deliver the material much more efficiently via video, I now have 20 extra minutes of class time in which I can have my students do more cognitively active work.
Another thing that I believe strongly about teaching is that teachers should Give Stuff Away. When I first started working at my school, I took over for a teacher who left in the middle of the semester. While I had no concerns about my mastery of the actual topics of the course, as a new teacher I had zero resources: no notes, no worksheets, no tests, no quizzes. And I also had no idea how to effectively present the topics to the students. Lucky for me, another teacher at my school had been teaching this course for several years, and she happily gave me two huge binders full of all of her course materials, organized and ready for me to use. It was a godsend. The class didn’t teach itself, but if my fellow teacher hadn’t given me all of the course materials that she had already created, I would have had a ton of extra work to do, in addition to the huge pile of “regular” work that a new teacher has to do.
Giving Stuff Away has benefits not only for the students, who get access to materials created by multiple teachers, and not only for the teachers who are able to use, and hopefully build upon, something that I’ve done, it also has benefits for me. When I create a new instructional video for one of my classes, I upload it to youtube and put a link on my class website. Occasionally someone will send me an email, or leave me a comment, that asks why I did something a certain way, or points out something that I could have done differently. That gives me an opportunity to reflect on my teaching and consider ways to improve it.
That’s the power of Giving Stuff Away. With very little extra effort, it’s not just me coming up with a better activity for me to use; it’s two of us, coming up with an even better activity for both of us. And pretty soon, often through the magic of the internet, it’s several of us, maybe even hundreds of us, adding and tweaking and improving, coming up with something that none of us would have been able to come up with alone, which can now be used by many students and teachers.
This kind of win-win-win scenario can occur almost effortlessly if teachers are willing to Give Stuff Away. Email it to colleagues, post it online, make it easily available to anyone who wants it. And they’ll take it and amplify the impact of your work in ways you could never have imagined.
[Note: I was recently selected by my teaching colleagues to be the 2014-2015 Teacher of the Year representative from our school; this was one of the essays I wrote as part of that process.]