How I Teach When I Really Want My Students to Learn
By Bryan Caplan
A month ago, my eleven-year-old sons still didn’t know how to tie their shoes. I volunteered to teach them. As a professional educator, I was tempted to teach shoe-tying the same way I teach econ: With a scintillating lecture. Since I really wanted my sons to learn how to tie their shoes, however, I did no such thing. Instead, I followed these six steps.
Step 1: Make the task easier. They were struggling to tie their shoes on their feet. So I had them place their shoes on the table and learn to tie them there. I also ordered easy-to-grip flat shoelaces to replace the round laces that came with the shoes.
Step 2: Break shoe-tying into a dozen sequential actions: cross the laces, pull the laces tight, form left and right rabbit ears, etc.
Step 3: Show them how to do the first action. Then place my hands over their hands while they do the first action. Then have them do it on their own, correcting any deviations from best practice. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Step 4: Practice only ten minutes per day regardless of success to avoid frustration.
Step 5: Once they reach near-mastery on the first action, tack on the second action and go back to Step 3. Keep tacking on actions until they master the whole sequence.
Step 6: Now, practice the same sequence with shoes on the feet. Repeat to mastery.
I almost – but not quite – went full behaviorist. 95% of the lesson was hands-on. Instead of lecturing, I recited shoe-tying catechisms: “Make the rabbit ears. Hand one-third up the lace. Make the rabbit ears. One-third. Not half. Make the rabbit ears. Both ears.” I never challenged my sons to ponder the deep nature of shoe-tying; I only wanted to impart the practical skill. When they made mistakes, I asked them to recite the catechism, correcting any deviations as they happened.
My lessons were fully effective. Before long, my sons were experts – and so they will remain for their whole lives. Which led to an awkward realization: My technique for teaching shoe-tying is much more effective than my technique for teaching economics. In my experience, only 5-10% of my students master the material by the final exam. And even my best students tend to quickly forget most of what they learned.
I’m tempted to lament the Iron Laws of Pedagogy. But my shoe-tying experience tells me that’s a cop-out. I know how to make my students learn more. If filling my students with life-long knowledge were my top priority, I’d replace my thoughtful lectures with catechisms. I’d make the students chant aloud with me. I’d break every lesson into baby steps, and drive the students to master them one by one. How? I’d randomly and mercilessly put students on the spot, pressing them to apply the lesson aloud – and correct the slightest misstep. We’d meet seven days a week for half an hour, endlessly recapping what we’ve learned. Sure, I’d cover far less ground. Yet after a semester, my students would know the basics for a lifetime.
Why don’t I do this? While I could say, “The best way to teach shoe-tying is radically different from the best way to teach economics,” that’s an excuse. The truth: I don’t teach econ the same way I teaching shoe-tying because I’d hate it, and my students would hate me.
I don’t wish to be a mere drill sergeant who turns raw recruits into competent economists. I want to be an artist who turns economics into a magical journey. I want to challenge my best students, not teach to the lowest common denominator. And my students, for their part, want to sit back and relax. They don’t want me to randomly shine the classroom spotlight on them, ask questions, demand answers, and make them feel stupid over and over until they know what they’re talking about. One midterm, one final: That’s enough stress for a semester.
Now that you’ve heard my pedagogical confession, you might expect me to turn over a new leaf. I probably won’t. I love old-fashioned teaching too much to walk away. And what’s the point of adopting more effective teaching techniques if students refuse to take my classes?