The advanced reader who skips parts that appear too elementary may miss more than the reader who skips parts that appear too complex – G. Polya
I was going through some books when I re-discovered a classic work by George Polya. Polya, who is better known for his best selling work entitled ‘How to solve it‘, wrote extensively on methods of learning, teaching and problem solving. The book which I re-discovered is more in depth and is called ‘Mathematical Discovery: On Understanding, Learning, and Teaching Problem Solving’. In one of the essays in the book, Polya proposes ten perennial rules for teaching. I’ll summarise the first five with my personal thoughts on them:
- Be interested in your subject: This is so true! If you are bored of the subject, you are definitely not doing justice to your students or your career. Admittedly, sometimes, there are pressures on researchers and teaching the same the course repeatedly might not be as exciting as it once was. However, it is a given that showing your boredom will automatically put students asleep.
- Know your subject: More than any other education method, it is the in-depth understanding of the subject that is most important before entering the lecture room. Polya points out that interest should come before knowledge because true knowledge only comes with genuine interest. This makes sense.
- Know the ways of learning: A basic grounding of learning methods and psychology is considered essential for any kind of teaching or mentoring. Moreover, Polya makes an excellent observation that self-discovery of a concept is the best way to learn and then teach it. It is easy to see that working out a proof from scratch makes one aware of the critical arguments instead of just reading a proof.
- Read faces and empathise: If one is observant enough, it is easy to notice which students are following you and which ones are nodding off! If the whole class is nodding off like that, it might be a good idea to explain things again. Being able to put oneself in the place of the students is critical for communication. As a teaching assistant during my undergraduate years, it was easy for me to explain matters to students because I was in their place only a couple of years before.
- Give not only info but ‘know-how': With easy access to information online, good guides and textbooks, the teacher’s responsibility is increasingly toward directing the student than giving information. As a seminar tutor, I try to go over general methods to tackle problems instead of going over each case study or problem.
I’ll be back with the final five golden rules.