By Dale Schlundt
Have you ever attended a class or lecture to listen to someone speak on a topic? Perhaps a continuing education class or even a simple information session. I'd like you to think of one time where you participated in something of this nature, where you were really excited about learning more on the subject matter.
Now I want you to compare the feeling you had when you arrived, prior to the talk, to the feeling you had when you left. Were the feelings comparable? Did you feel just as excited about what you learned or less?
I would argue there are two types of speakers, one that leaves the audience with a greater understanding of what they were covering, hence creating a sense of fulfillment in their audience members. The other is the individual that left you with feelings of confusion, questions, and a sense of time wasted. Who wants to go to listen to someone and not leave with an asset they can both understand and use?
College level classes are no different. Students want to leave with two elements, one being the ability to comprehend the material. The second is the knowledge of how to put it to use in the real world. As instructors, how do we differentiate ourselves from the ones who leave students with more questions than not? Simplifying the material and creating real world applications for them.
Today's educators are taught to be learners along with their students. Having the privilege of seeing these bright minds at work, I have been the beneficiary of this principle. My students do a research paper every year using peer reviewed and primary sources. However, a significant portion of their grade is to teach us what they spent the last month researching. As we have not all read the research on their particular topic, they simply have to "dumb it down for us."
One of my groups focused on the decreasing freedoms of the English colonists leading to the American Revolution — more specifically, the differences between colonists who came to expect the same freedoms as an "Englishman" and those societies who were not exposed to nor given similar freedoms. It's a concept that is easy to understand, yet not necessarily relatable to most individuals living the 21st century.
While the findings of the group's research are not applicable to this article, their method is. To begin, the group handed out candy — yes, candy — to every student in the classroom. Once everyone had a piece, they divided the classroom into two sections and picked up all the candy on only one side. The other side proceeded to eat (or devour, I should say) their candy.
The side that acquired and ate their candy represented the absence of acquiring something and then having it taken away, in this case freedom. Whether they had the candy or not made no differences as nothing was lost. However, the side that had theirs taken away represented the individuals who came to expect such rights before having that freedom stolen from them — a powerful concept. Although we would argue that all societies desired these freedoms as much as those who possessed them, the contrast between the two was the goal of this activity (in case you were wondering, everyone did receive a candy after the presentation was completed.)
Too simple for a college class, you say? I argue that it is a perfect fit. Why? The group brought an applicable emotion into a rather complex era of history, thereby making it both relatable and understandable. Simplified. Now a topic that most students would walk away from and forget has a feeling to complement that new knowledge. They created a basic human connection to the material while also incorporating the research.
This embodies the fundamental objective of any educational setting. The final result is a higher degree of comprehension as well as having the learner retain the information longer because it is now usable. It is now something the student can "wrap their head around," making it that much easier to recall when they need to use it down the road. Recognizing that our students comprehend the material, we now proceed to illustrating how they may apply the information in a real world context, further enhancing our pedagogical design.
Practicality (The Real World Setting)
Understanding the material is one thing, yet applying it in a practical means puts quite a bit of weight on the instructor to find those applications. In some disciplines it is much more difficult than others. I have the luxury of teaching history, one that lends itself well to everyday life. Nevertheless, it can be done. In addition, it is the answer to the student's question: what's the point?
The cold, hard truth is at times you will find a real world relation that fits perfectly, perhaps one the learner has already experienced, and at times you will simply be at a loss. That's ok. Although very seldom, there have been certain topics where I have told my students that I don't know how they will use this in their day to day life. What we are covering will assist them in understanding the next topic, but I have no real world context in which they can apply the information. To my surprise in almost every instance, by acknowledging this lack of real world examples to give, students will find one for the class, fulfilling the student-centered approach.
In most cases however, there will be ample scenarios to offer. Perhaps in government we are connecting the Supreme Court's historical role and the impact of their present day decisions on students' futures as well as their children's. In math we may relate interest rates to fixed vs. adjustable rate mortgages, making personal finance part of the discussion. In biology, we may connect the advances in nutrition and medicine having a bearing on longer lifespans, creating a discussion on societal implications that follow. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, art class may cover the many artists' roles in influencing both history as well as our present day culture, such as Norman Rockwell. Despite the previous examples being oversimplified, in virtually every lesson of every discipline, there will always be countless connections to our student's lives. The ultimate goal for true understanding is for the instructor to incorporate them into the curriculum, giving the class purpose.
I always explain to my students that one of the greatest attributes of any good speaker is the ability to know and answer the following question for their audience: "Why should we care?" The reason we give our valued time to anyone is because we believe they will convey something of value to us. Our students are our audience. We have to remember, if our students grasped a topic in the same way those who are teaching do, we could all simply go home. There would be no need to participate in the education setting.
However, what I remind my students is the reason they are going into higher education is because their future employers will be looking for an expert in a particular field — not someone who is there to confuse a complex topic for their end users or customers. Instead, employers prefer one who will generate sales, research, grants, or outreach.
Individuals who can appropriately "dumb it down" for those end users who are not experts in the particular field have more value. Otherwise, where is the need for their specified education?
As educators we are presumably experts in our field, so let us make the information accessible to the learner. Simplifying is our first step towards assisting our student in applying the material in a practical real world end.