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Teaching:  Friction vs Gradient:

Don't be proud of being a hard teacher until you know the difference between friction and gradient when it comes to teaching.


Hiking up a steep hill is (to a hiker) fun.

Playing a strenuous game of football or basketball is typically considered "fun" by the players. Doing "yoga" is considered "fun" or even "relaxing" by practitioners. To the people who do those things the activity itself likely seems fairly easy.

Hiking up a hill is generally not a hard thing for an in-shape hiker.

However -- hiking in the dark, with no shoes, up a steep hill that is covered with sharp rocks would be hard regardless what shape a person is in.

Friction and gradient are two different things.
Friction is the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.
Gradient is the downward or upward slope.

Courses can be "challenging" and "require significant cognitive growth" (think "gradient") but still be perceived by participants as being fun.

However, many courses are poorly planned, not explained well, disjointed, confusing, and lack ways for students to seek and receive support. (Think "friction.")

Some teachers seem to mistakenly pride themselves when students complain that their class is "hard.

Instructors ought to ask themselves: "Are my classes perceived as hard because the content is challenging (which is a good thing) or are my classes perceived as hard because students can't figure out what is expected of them?"

Likewise when discussing classes there are two different kinds of "easy." There are classes that seem easy because they are well designed, have clear expectations, accessible materials, and are taught in a skillful manner. Those are good classes. However, some teachers offer classes that seem easy because not much is expected of the students (the gradient is flat / the slope doesn't go upward).

Teachers should make it a priority to ensure their courses are well planned and their syllabi are clear and specific. (Sure, that is a "Duh!" statement -- yet many teachers don't do this.)

Consider whether or not your lessons are aimed within the mental grasp of your students. If so, there is no reason why they can't learn vast amounts of information and still perceive the course as being enjoyable as long as the the upward slow of the learning involves very little friction.

Properly motivated and rewarded students will work incredibly hard, learn huge amounts of information, develop strong new skills and yet consider a class to have been "fun."

Consider how people invest years of preparation and pay vast sums of money to climb Mount Everest. No one forces you to climb Mount Everest.

An entertaining and engaging learning environment (full of games and interactive conversations) often results in a situation in which students don't seem to notice how hard they are working.

I recall a semester during which I experimented with not requiring much of my students or "hard things" like coming to the front of the class and signing in front of their peers. I thought I was being "kind" to them. To my surprise, those of my students who had me as a teacher the previous semester asked me why I wasn't making them "come to the front this semester?" I responded because I thought I was "being nice." Those students informed me that they actually missed the hard things because it kept them on their toes and inspired them to study!

Ever since I've tried to keep in mind that many (if not most) students actually LIKE being challenged and having their instructor keep frequent tabs on them. Hard work is fine. Busywork is not. Challenging content is fine. Challenging (as in confusing) syllabi -- are not.





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