To Canvas or Not to Canvas: A Rebellion Against Sameness (Part 2)

So, last week I tried to convince you that NOVELTY forms the basis of learning—if something is “new” we pay attention to it.  We can’t help it, that’s just the how the brain works!
But on the other hand routine, standardization, automation and sameness work well for us as teachers—it makes our professional lives a lot easier!  But it also may prove a disservice to our students.  It may metaphorically (or literally) put our students’ brains to sleep.
So what are we to do?


Here’s the bottom line:  We choose.  As harsh as it may sound, we choose our own ease and comfort, or we choose to prioritize student learning.  Ouch.  But this is what excellent teaching is all about.  I can be a mediocre or even a good teacher, or I can choose to strive to be an excellent teacher.  And the result of that choice is the kind of learning experienced by my students.

A short aside:  I hear (and you do, too) people who are non-teachers complain about how “easy” teaching is (and how overpaid teachers are).  It angers me and drives me nuts (er, more nuts that I already am).  But sometimes I’m chagrined because if I choose, it can be fairly easy, especially with the “tools” that are available to me these days!  The difficult part of teaching is the creative aspect—keeping things novel and fresh and alive for students (and myself!)
So I make a choice.  I make a choice to attempt to have students experience something different and unexpected every class.  I try to make entering the classroom “novel” each period.  (The greatest compliment I get is when I overhear students say, “I never know what to expect when I come into this class!”  I am fairly confident that they are probably going to learn something that day.)  I consciously and conscientiously attempt to switch between the whiteboard, Powerpoint presentations, discussions, lectures, YouTube videos and movies.  I change up the seating arrangement, or have students move from “their own” seats to a different location in the classroom.
Students don’t always like this, at least initially.  They have been conditioned for more than a dozen years to sit in rows, stay quiet and let someone else do much of their thinking for them.  But over the course of the semester, I hope they begin to recover a genuine love of learning.  I’m convinced the only way to accomplish this is to “shake things up.”  It may be good pedagogy, but for sure it’s good neuroscience.
NOTE:  I don’t do this perfectly.  Or consistently.  Speaking candidly, I just get tired.  My brain doesn’t function and my “creativity” runs out.  But after I quit feeling sorry myself, and get revived, I strengthen my resolve to teach excellently.  It’s a process that’s been going on for over 30 years, and isn’t finished yet.


Next week I’ll share another way I have tried to introduce novelty in my courses—a rebel with a cause!

3 thoughts on “To Canvas or Not to Canvas: A Rebellion Against Sameness (Part 2)

  1. I love it, Mark! So inspirational, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s easy to get lazy in all facets of life, teaching included. I’m going to share your quote with my education students: ‘we choose our own ease and comfort, or we choose to prioritize student learning’. Amen and preach on, brotha!

  2. Someone once told me that “you never ‘arrive’ in teaching”. I remember one of my pre-service education teachers hearing an idea from a student and she said “Oooh, I like that. I think that I’m going to try that too”. She was one year away from retirement and a seasoned excellent teacher. I love a profession like that. I like learning how to teach, right along with my students who are learning how to learn. May we all never arrive! -Curtis

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