What I wish I knew starting out

cropped-class-hand2.jpgThis weekend, I was asked: What do you wish you had known when you first started teaching economics?

Although there are plenty of economics concepts I wish I’d understood better back in 2002, like the relationship between bonds and interest rates, how to calculate terms of trade, what a liquidity trap is (I told kids it wasn’t a real thing!) and how to explain a monopoly graph, most of my responses were more about teaching strategies than content.

What do I wish I knew 20 years ago, when I was really new at this?

  • That you don’t have to have all the right answers. It’s so embarrassing as a new teacher when a student stumps you. But who among us knows everything? Just say, “I haven’t considered that. Let’s figure it out together.” Trusting students to be partners in learning is empowering to them, and it doesn’t have to make us nervous. (Now, I just ask someone to look it up in class.)
  • That you do need to figure out how to explain the wrong answers. How many times did I cling to my highlighted AP answer key, uncertain why some of the responses were wrong but ready to provide the right answer? It doesn’t help students to say, “C is right.” You do have to be able to help them to understand why A is wrong, or you’ll never get anywhere.
  • That understanding how students think about a problem is a prerequisite to helping them. We often assume we know why a student got a question wrong – not studying, forgetting a principle, confusing a vocabulary term. But sometimes they actually do everything right, and their logic leads them down the wrong path. Reiterating definitions to them will not help.
  • That students learn more from doing, experiencing and discussing than they do from listening. Students forget most of what we tell them. We need to give them a chance to work with concepts, build models, manipulate ideas, use terms in a meaningful context. That’s what makes learning sticky.
  • That we have to actively break students’ reliance on memorization, or they’ll rely on it for everything. We teach students to memorize everything from a young age, but memorization doesn’t work very well when you’re faced with challenging questions. On my last test, 70% of my students picked “recessionary gap” to describe a situation where an economy is operating above full employment, because it looked like a similar problem (about an inflationary gap) on their homework. They weren’t reasoning – they were trying to remember – and that strategy failed them.
  • That students are capable of a lot more than they let on. They’ll tell you they can’t do it even when they can. We need to be the ones who see a student’s potential, cultivate it, and help them see it too. I’ll never forget a brilliant young man telling me his older brother had once advised him, “Don’t let them see how smart you are, or they’ll just expect more!” We’ve got to break that pattern.

I don’t know if it’s possible to share advice like this with new teachers — or if everyone just has to figure it out for themselves — but it’s worth a try.