Saturday, 11 June 2011

You learn something everyday

In my profession, we teachers sometimes lose sight of this little nugget. Taking a personal time out during the day is important. Not with students or parents or colleagues hovering, but a proper moment when we can sit and reflect, rewind through a class as a whole or focus on something that happened.

Nobody will ever accuse me of being particularly deep, but I do try hard to think about my students as learners rather teaching subjects; this often means I "allow" a fair amount of autonomy in my lessons if my students are prepared to haggle a bit! Even the best prepared & rehearsed lesson can come crashing down - built on a misplaced assumption of previous learning or remembering to bring books etc. Very occasionally, you get sideswiped by something so out of the blue you can't get back on track. Inexperienced teachers can let this happen too easily, and digress off into the deep grass ne'er to return, with a lot if floundering & over-talking on the way.

Over the last three weekends I've been examining - Tokyo, Aizuwakamatsu & Nagoya. Protocol means I can't get into an unscripted 'chat', and the class I was teaching on Thursday night was an exam prep one, focussing particularly that night on speaking.

The wheels fell off remarkably quickly. I asked about her lecture last week (not the ubiquitously lazy "What did you do last weekend?" but not far off) to warm up. Before I knew it, she was at the board explaining how she'd had a very exciting time illustrating Fibonacci, with examples from nature such as pine cones, snails & petals...this much I could follow, as I'd listened to a superb radio broadcast ("In our Time" with Melvyn Bragg talking to three experts) 18 months ago.

However, the leap of faith to using the Napier number (he was Scottish, by the way) to come up with a rough estimation of the energy released in an earthquake (topical, here in Japan - and in our class, as we had a minor tremor midway through the week before), was a step too far for this mathematically challenged sensei!

For the curious, here is a rough sketch of how you would use Napier to calculate the amount of energy unleashed. The axes and algebra was explained to this math dummy. Fortunately, my student is a good teacher and I got the gist. A small increase in M (magnitude) = massive difference in energy. I think we have all become armchair physicists lately and know the scale of earthquakes is not linear but exponential? How else to explain that the M9 here on March 11th was approx. 65,000 times more powerful than the M7 (ish) one that clobbered Christchurch?

Anyway, I wanted to share "What I learned this week". Not that Fibonacci leads to Napier which explains earthquakes, but that all of our students have got surprises up their sleeves. Even if we do not really know what they are on about, part of our job is surely to give our students the floor, if they want it. Along the way in our classes not to revisit hoary old stories but to be interesting with useful anecdotes when appropriate to illustrate a point if necessary. But remember, all of our students have back stories too, and likely even more fascinating than ours!

So, what will I learn next week, students?!

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