Laughing at my own jokes

Continuing from the last entry, on the subject of teaching, someone wrote this to me in an email:

Oh, and you could ask them leading questions! Doesn’t matter if you answer them yourself, because you’d have made your kids start to think. Nevermind if students think you’re just answering your own questions. I find questions are good ‘flags’ for what’s important.

This had never occurred to me before. I have been trying to make sure that someone else answers my questions. I fear that if I answer my own questions, and especially if I get in the habbit of doing so, the girls will get lazy knowing that I am going to do it, and they will not engage their own brains. I have the feeling at the moment that I am asking them to do something they are completely unused to: answering questions to which they have not rehersed the correct answer from their notes. It involves thinking. I have told them to answer saying “I’m not sure but I think …”, and I have tried to make sure I appreciate every answer equally since I am happy to get wrong answers. The thing I like best is answers that reveal thought, whether right or wrong.

So I ask you, reader, do you think its would be helpful for me to answer my own questions? Pleased leave a comment on this entry and let me know what you think.

This morning I used an old teaching trick: ask the same question as a few minutes ago but in a different way. I had asked “What is a GET request” in the context of Javascript and the world-wide web. Nobody answered. I asked if they had done this in earlier lessons — they have all done web design classes at least, where they ought to have mentioned this subject. I was still not sure. I asked if anyone had heard of the GET request and three ladies put up their hands nervously to half-mast as if to say “yes I have done it but I am not prepared to answer an question on it”. So I drew a couple of computers on the boad, and a cloud for the internet. Labled them client and server and asked what the software was called on each of them. Then I described the fact that the browser software on the client sends a request to the server software asking for a particular web page, and the server sends the HTML content of that page back to the browser so it can render it on the screen. I drew arrows accross the cloud for the request and the html response. Then I pointed to the request arrow and asked “What is this called?”, pause, “What is the name we give to the request the browser sends to the server?”. Long pause. So I told them that I had just re-asked a question from earlier in a different way. One of them got it and promptly put up her hand. She smiled when she answered: “the GET request”.

It feels like a psychological game; as if were I to answer my own question they would just sit and stare blankly at me. So far I have been adamant about answers to questions. Each time, after rephrasing a question a couple of times and looking expectaltly at the class, I will pause in silence and watcht them tryint to avoid eye-contact with me. Then I will tell them what I see (that they are trying to avoid my eyes) and state that this is not goging to help and then ask the question again. These sielnt pauses could go on for ages. They simply will not answer. So it becomes a battle of wills. I have taken to calling out names from the register and asking for answers, just as a way of getting things going again, or else we would spend most of the lesson in silence. And I have been doing it to establish the precident that my questions are to be taken seriously and to be answered. I am hoping that in this way they will be more inclined to answer in future. I fear that by answering my own questions I will undermine my own seriousness in future.

But maybe there is something in it. Maybe it would work: make them think, internally, even if they aren’t brave enough to answer voluntarily. Before I try it, as a technique, I want to know what you guys think.


  1. Prof Mungbean Says:

    "drew a couple of computers on the board, and a cloud for the internet" … this made me smile – I must’ve done that a hundred times, and I bet our clouds even looked the same. 🙂

    You have to remember that you’re not just teaching them new stuff, which they might have expend significant energy trying to understand, but you’re also doing it in a way which is completely unlike the style of teaching that they’re used to. So the TandL in your classroom is resting on unusual foundations which you’re ALL building as you go along. Bound to be a bit wobbly for a while.

    A provocative question: what makes you so sure that you should be teaching this YOUR WAY and not THEIR WAY? You are a stranger in a strange land, and it could be argued that insisting on using British cultural norms in your African classroom is another form of Imperialism/Colonialism.

    I’m sure VSO dealt with this kind of stuff in your training, so I’m interested to know what their thinking is on this.

    BTW "psychological game", "battle of wills"… sounds like you’re competing with the students rather than trying to support them! I can appreciate what you’re up to, but maybe you need to remind yourself to be supportive and "nice" from time to time, or else they’ll all start to be afraid of you. (Personally this is a problem I have often… I want to push the students and make sure they learn lots and really benefit from the studying, but it’s easy to push hard all the time without realising the damage you might be doing.)

  2. Prof Mungbean again Says:

    BTW, I think answering your own questions is fine, so long as you leave a long enough gap for people to try to answer (and then double it to make it clear that you were REALLY waiting…)

    Praising them for answering (even when wrong) will surely help though… takes a while to get to know a new class as it is, and you’ve only been teaching them a few weeks.

    I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this!

    Love, Mungers (sitting in a classroom^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Studio)

  3. L Says:

    Think its a good plan. Or just pretend to be so stupid that they get cross and put you right! :rolleyes:

  4. L's students Says:

    Hi there, we’re a bunch of Louise’s students. She’s letting us talk to you for no apparent reason, and to tell you how to teach people dynamically.

    The answer: You can’t.


  5. Mark Says:

    Well it wasn’t really as if there was a serious battle of wills going on. Just a way of describing my perception of the psychology.

    Yeah I have wondered how much justification I have in trying to teach in my style. At VSO I did the teaching skills course, and the course on adapting teachin skills for developing countries. The general opinion there was that introducing some student-centred learning was a good thing. But even in the UK there was normal teaching and then Mark’s style of teaching! And I can’t really do it any other way.

  6. Anonymouse Says:

    The problem with very student-centered learning is that it relies on the students being motivated and determined, and being able to work under their own steam properly. It’s a struggle for teachers to find the balance to compensate for the members of the class who are less determined, as well as catering for the people who prefer completely teacher led (i.e. lecture style) lessons.
    But, whatever. Do what you feel works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

  7. Katie O. Says:

    Wait, they’re letting you teach?

  8. Katie O. Says:

    Wait, they’re letting you teach?

  9. Katie O. Says:

    Hee, hee! That joke isn’t funny once, much less twice. My bad, sorry.

    By the by, Mark, do your students know about your blog?

  10. Mark Says:

    :laugh: yeah, they’re letting me. I had to bully them though.

    No, they dont know about it so far AFAIK. But I have written even this entry with the thought in mind that they might read it. Its the truth (perhaps I over-stressed the bit about batle of wills, it didnt feel that much of a battle) but its how I feel.

  11. Mark Says:

    I texted my friend who runs a training company that focusses on fun.

    She said:
    Short answer: change their physiology:
    make them laugh/get them moving to music?
    & stop being tall & intimidating! Mess up a lot :)…

    and then
    Missed the main thing:
    the female psyche responds to-
    praise (foranything and everything)
    vs challenge for male psyche,
    in case you are wondering.

    So today’s lab session had some funny bits in it. I had them get up and walk round the room for //no aparent reason// and I messed up and mucked about. I invited them to come and write on the board. I used their names a lot and I dished out as much praise and appreciation as I could remember to do.

    It seemed to help. I got some good answers– both right and wrong ones, which makes me very happy, if they have confidence to give the wrong answer I’m winning. And I then know how I can help.

  12. firewalker Says:

    Mark – sounds like you are making progress with them.

    When it comes to praise: it’s important to praise their involvement and ideas in order to build on their self-esteem and encourage future participation, even if the answers aren’t correct. It’s even worth asking questions you know they know the answers to, and getting them to shout them out. Anything that helps them know that its OK (and preferably fun) to open their mouths and contribute.

    Here’s another thought about training – for someone to understand the "unknown", it needs to be related to something they already "know". Use as much metaphor, story and analogy to their own lives (and hence their culture) as you can. Make it as funny and interactive as you can – for instance get them standing up and pretending to be computers, talking in simulated code rather than typing – get their bodies as active as possible. No blood flow through the body seriously dulls the brain and their attention.

  13. Mark Says:

    Thanks for getting in touch right away and thanks for the email and texts too!

    Its an interesting challenge to give positive feedback to incorrect answers. I find I’ve been conditioned to say "no" but Im trying to give appreciation first and then, later, say "its not the answer I was hoping for" or something.

    Its so culturally different here that Im moving very cautiously with interactive stuff. I do teach dance on mondays and wednesdays so I have set a precident for being slightly mad and doing physical stuff. But I imagine i would have big hurdles to cross to get them to do any role-play yet.

    But step by step. At least we did the walking round the class thing today, to address the very problem you identified. Lessons are 2 hours long! My predecessor used to set up 10 min breaks which foolishly perhapos I have not yet done.

    I’d quite like to actually **lead** a 10 minute physical exercise for them between hours. Anybody got a book (or better still a web site) of suggestions? Fun interactive things to do that cross cultural boundaries?

  14. Drew Says:

    Something I read many years ago, when, i was a teenager looking for a cure for his fear of making mistakes:
    "If you can guarantee that you can be right, even 51% of the time you might as well quit this and go make your fortune as a professional gambler."

    I’m still poor (in money) but I’m happy making mistakes. 😀

    As for 10 minute of exercise – I would get some giant cotton wool buds and host a pugel stick battle on the desk tops.
    Last girl standing goes through to the next round:
    Head to head elminator against the top gladiators, Sister Mary and the skipperator.

  15. Mark Says:

    Drew! I laughed aloud at that. In fact I snorted and attracted unwanted attention in the lab!

    I’ll think about the pugel stick battles and what I could put on the flooor to stop them breaking when they fall.

    I dont think I have ever told you of my plan to make Gladiators into a **good** show by getting Julian Clary to be the compare?

  16. Cyka Says:

    i hated school, but the teacher of my world literature class left a lifetime impact on me. primarily because we were studying religions and reading the koran, the bible, the tao te ching. anyway, it was a very confusing time for me in what ‘religion’ i was, and when the bell ending the class rang, he always ended by making us stand on our desks, dead poet society style, and would say ‘everything you saw on the blackboard or what i said while you were sat in the chair are only the facts, the real lesson is what you now see and feel seeing the lesson from your current angle’.

    to this day, i read my morning meditation over a cup of tea either on the patio or the sofa. but then i go stand on something and it’s only then that i’ve really taken the day’s meditation in’.

    if i were a student today, i think i’d learn the most from expecting the unexpected.

    i really admire your ability to teach. i’d be a horrible teacher…i’d end up passing out crayons once a week and dragging the students outside to draw what they think a circuit board looks like or something equally naff.

  17. Mark Says:

    I think that drawing what you think circuit borads look like in crayon is an excelent idea. A good way to examine your own prejudices and ideas. Especially if you get to talk about what you have drawn and why it is the way it is. I will consider doign this one day.

    I have an image of a class where we do things like "draw a picture of the internet" or whtever. The learning part would, however, I feel be dependent on the discussion and at the moment discussions in the classroom feel a long way off (though not impossible) and I dont have the guts/self-confidence to do unexpected things just for the sake of them.

  18. Cyka Says:

    at the moment discussions in the classroom feel a long way off (though not impossible) and I dont have the guts/self-confidence to do unexpected things just for the sake of them.

    right is not right; so is not so. if right were really right, it would differ so from not right that there would be no need for argument. if so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for arguement. forget the years; forget distinctions. leap into the boundless and make it your home
    -chuang tzu

    think about it. and not just in reference to doing unexpected things in class. you have a lot more self-confidence then you admit to. and you know it too.

  19. Emma firewalker Says:

    Mark, how can you expect to get confidence back from your class if you are not prepared to be confident, risk making a mistake and having some fun yourself? Your ability to relax and go with the flow will help them all – girls especially read and mirror people to help them feel they are acting appropriately. Plus you can’t learn and grow without cocking it up big style somewhere along the way.

    There are millions of games called "icebreakers" that are short physical or mental interruptions to gain a good mood. Even simple ones to help people get to know one another, like throwing balls to people in a circle and calling out their names (and building up to 3 balls at a time) can be highly effective – especially if you join in.

    Put the breaks back in too, people need to be able to think about what they are learning to get anything of value from it.

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