By Bryan Caplan
Over the last three years, my older sons have gone from near-zero knowledge of Spanish to fluency. Given my open disdain for foreign language education, what’s the backstory?
I started them in 9th grade because almost all good colleges impose an admission requirement of 3-4 years of foreign language instruction. From the outset, my boys planned to demonstrate their competence on the Spanish Language AP test. Going through the motions would not suffice; we knew my sons actually had to learn a lot of Spanish. After a few sour months, fortunately, my sons started to like their new subject. Then they became obsessed… in a good way. Now they’ve taken college classes for natives in Spain and Guatemala, written a publishable paper on Mexican history using primary sources, and mostly speak Spanish to each other.
Since our emergency homeschool contains these two fluent Spanish-speakers, I thought it might be fruitful for my older sons to teach Spanish to their younger siblings. After all, the younger ones are going to need a foreign language for college one day, too.
The catch: When Spanish instruction began last week, I realized that my older sons knew Spanish, but not how to teach. As a result, I’m teaching teaching while they’re teaching Spanish. Since I’ve been teaching professionally for about 25 years, its principles are second nature to me. Yet if you’re now teaching for the first time in your life, they’re non-obvious. Indeed, in my experience, over half of working teachers fail to internalize them. As Morpheus admonishes in The Matrix, “Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
Principles of Effective Teaching
1. Take the difficulty level you naturally want to use. Now divide it by 10. Remember: The material is only obvious to you because you are the teacher. It is non-obvious to your students because they are the students.
2. If you’re teaching at MIT or Caltech, you are now at the right difficulty level. If you’re anywhere else, divide by 10 again. Remember: Even smart people are, at first, terrible at almost everything.
3. Don’t expects students to “figure things out for themselves.” Start with model problems, then work through them at a snail’s pace.
4. Once you have shown students clear model problems, assign a bunch of slightly different problems. Tell them to get to work. Mush!
5. If your students do less than 75% of their problems correctly, your problems are still too hard. Walk them through problems so easy you can’t even imagine their inability to do them. This will improve their knowledge and your imagination.
6. If your students do 75-94% of their problems correctly, give them more practice. Drill, drill, drill.
7. If your students do 95%+ of their problems correctly, they are ready to advance. Even then, remember that they are likely to forget unless you periodically give them refresher work (except for highly sequential subjects).
8. Never confuse logic with psycho-logic – and remember that psycho-logic is much more important for pedagogy. What does that mean? Don’t expect students to grasp that A–>B simply because A–>B. Your job is to make truisms seem obvious to ignorant minds. Vary your examples. Mix it up. Switch around. Use repetition. Use repetition. Use repetition.
9. Look at your students’ faces. If they are bored, be more fun. Tell jokes. Mock yourself. Clown around. Playfully exaggerate all emotions. Throw your pride aside; a teacher is an entertainer or he is a failure.
10. Look at your students’ faces. If they are frustrated, be more patient. Never add negative emotion on top of negative emotion. If a student is upset, be a model of mild-mannered stoicism. Without fail. Without fail. Without fail.
11. Look at your students’ faces. If they feel like their efforts are pointless, sell them your subject. Tell them what learning your subject will do for them, even if the only honest answer is, “You need this for graduation.”
12. Look at your students’ faces. If they don’t trust you, earn their trust. Don’t merely avoid deception; be frank. Don’t sugarcoat the world, even for little kids. Unless the ugly truth will give them nightmares or get you fired, share it with equanimity.
13. Look at your students’ faces. If you can’t read their emotions, ask them questions. Press them. Find out what they already know. Find out what confuses them. Find out whether they are happy or sad or think you’re crazy. Accept their answers beatifically and adjust your pedagogy to fit the students you actually have.
14. Maintain discipline. If you have a schedule, stick to it. If you announce a punishment, stick to it. If you promise a break, stick to it. Education is for the students, but it is not a democracy. Listen carefully to what your students stay, but only reform from a position of strength. Don’t be generous; be magnanimous! If you think this contradicts Principle #9, know that you are wrong. Act like a jester – but rule like a king.
15. All of these principles are optimized for one-on-one teaching. If you’re teaching more students, you have to strike a balance. You will always shortchange someone. Sorry, that’s a classroom – another point in favor of homeschooling.