What great teachers should not do: interesting examples

Praveen S
Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Let us start with an exercise. Those who hold an MBA degree can think about a significant learning experience or a significant concept that you learned while pursuing MBA; may be around five years back and found to be very fruitful to apply in your day-to-day life. Those who don’t hold an MBA degree or have completed the course (MBA) recently can think about any significant concept absorbed from school or college. Think how you applied the concept in your field or how useful it was to you. Then think about the person who inculcated the concept to your mind and how (s)he did the same. It would be quite an astonishing fact that, none of that ‘great teacher’’s classes; where you had always witnessed yourself on cloud-nine had instilled the concept in you. It adds to the surprise factor, when you recall and recognize the fact that your ‘great teacher’ was not at all successful in infusing in your brain; the concept(s) (s)he had been dealing with. The reason behind this reality is the fact that there is thick line between enjoying and learning.
    On the contrary, if we come across the question ‘Who is your favorite teacher?’ the answers would be different. The answers would not be surprising, as majority of us would mention the names of those ‘great teachers’; whose classes we perceive as still in our minds. A few days back I had commenced a session with the two questions mentioned and the replies were as expected. When session was carried forward asking the participants to come up with the concepts learned in those teachers’ classes, I  heard answers like ‘He used the example of a pineapple and related it to something, it was very interesting’. I found that the participant remembered only the fact that a particular concept covered using the example of a pineapple; but had forgotten the concept. However, he identified it to be very interesting in further probing. Likewise, in another session, when a different participant was asked to answer the same question, he revealed that the ‘great teacher’ had spoken about a concept relating it to Coca-cola. The whole class was exposed to interesting images and videos in connection with consumption of Coca-Cola. Alike the first incident the student was unable to say which was the concept discussed. Another participant of the same kind recalled that burgers were connected with heart attacks by his favourite faculty to explain the concept but failed to recall the concept. 
In all the aforesaid incidents the participants were asked to speak further about the nature of the examples they had come across. After listening to them I got to understand that the examples were effective enough to communicate the concept at a particular point of time, but not powerful enough to make the learners grasp the concept. I was also able to make out that the participants; during their school/college days were highly influenced by the examples chosen. In other words, examples chosen by their ‘great teacher(s)’ had appealed to them, highly. All these actualities seem to be sufficient to make my argument that interesting examples possess the capacity to arrest the attention of a learner while the concept is being taught; but they may not help in learning the concept. Stirring up my memories as an MBA student in an IIM, and when I did the exercise on myself, I recollect two important concepts. In both the cases, my instructors had the habit of not relying on interesting examples to convey a concept. No interesting pictures or visuals were there to associate the concept with.  We were using examples, definitely can be called borderline concepts. These examples always held an element of ambiguity in them; pointing which also I, as a student have argued with the instructor on the skeptical ground of, their link with the respective concepts. There was always some scope of alternative explanations. We students found these examples ambiguously related to concepts the faculty was trying to communicate. We sometimes fought with the faculty over the applicability of the example to the concept and came up with better examples that suit the theoretical concept. In the end we forgot the example, but the concept remained with us. Years later I realized that, the examples that seemed to be annoying once; had rooted the concepts in my brain and vanished themselves. 
This suits well with the notion of learning put forward by Piaget, Dewey on the experiential nature of learning. As Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack have quoted in their book -  Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Transform Professional Practice: “The experience of cognitive discomfort is not an unfortunate consequence of new learning: it is an essential prerequisite of new learning” (p 20). Though it is not mandatory that people have to fail in order to learn, the feeling of psychological discomfort is a fundamental part of the process, and practiced by great philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Deep questioning and reflection to cause the discomfort was part of educational methods followed by early Indian philosophers as well. The core of all these methods is the ambiguity of the examples used to convey the concept.  It is to be noted that any method using interesting examples do not fetch with any learning benefit. They result in providing one with an after-meal mint effect alone.  
Now, donning the hat of a professor I experiment with such discussions using ambiguous examples while teaching. The classes are challenging. Students do not agree to you. You can see that they are not satisfied.  However, I hope that some years down the line the concept will remain in them, not the examples I am using in the class.