I love driving to work with the good folks at NPR as company. Day after day, they introduce me to people, places, books, music, and ideas that I wouldn’t encounter during the rest of the day. A recent trip offered an interview of Alexandra Horowitz, author of the bestselling About a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. The topic of her discussion with host Marty Moss-Coane was Horowitz’s new book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.
Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who teaches at Barnard, often walked the same route in her Manhattan neighborhood. She decided to try walking the route with eleven very different companions to see how their unique perspectives might change her own view of her neighborhood. As she walked with a naturalist, an architect, an artist, a geologist, a toddler, a dog, and others, she was surprised to learn what she had and had not seen when walking alone.
What might her experiences teach us? How can we improve our teaching by seeing the world through the eyes of other “experts”? A few ideas:
- Walk around your room as you teach to literally see what is and isn’t visible from different parts of the room. I was surprised to find that the notes that I’d written on the board in what I thought were giant letters were actually barely visible from the back row. A lot of junk that clutters my lab is at best unappealing and at worst downright distracting.
- Listen carefully as your students tell you exactly where their understanding “goes off the rails.” Sometimes we have known our subject so well for so long that it’s hard to identify the confusing bits. I’m sometimes startled by how simple confusion about a word or diagram can derail my students. Class by class, I’m learning where those predictable trouble spots are, and I can help my students avoid them.
- Eavesdrop on your students’ conversations during downtime. A student who appears bored and drowsy may have been up all night with a sick child or be working two jobs. A little sympathy may not improve student performance much, but it does wonders for my attitude toward teaching them.
- Take advantage of every opportunity to talk about teaching and your classes with colleagues from other disciplines. An idea that seems straightforward and even a bit shopworn can take on new life when viewed by an expert with a different viewpoint.
Have you had the chance to view the familiar through the eyes of others? What did you learn?
You can hear Marty Moss-Coane’s interview Alexandra Horowitz at WHYY in Philadelphia by clicking here.