How many times must I tell you?

by Carl Dyke

I noticed myself doing something interesting today. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach three sections of introductory World History back to back to back. We were doing a document analysis using my critical reading rubric. Inevitably I end up providing some of the same guidance from section to section, so that by the third section, from my perspective I’m saying the same thing for the third time.

I share a common prejudice that people who need things repeated to them three times might not be all that bright. (Actually, since I had the students divided up into smaller work groups among which I circulated, I said some of the same things way more than three times.) I know there can be reasons repetition might be needed that have nothing to do with intelligence, so I can usually intercept my first reflex reaction. But the point here, of course, is that I was not repeating myself to the same people; it just felt that way by the end of a long day. And as a result I noticed myself reflexively feeling as if the third section might be a little dim – when in fact they picked up the task and performed it every bit as well as the earlier sections.

It’s interesting to think what kinds of effects might accumulate over a long semester, or career, of letting this dynamic play out. Just a little more impatience in my body language, a little less care in explaining the ‘third’ time, or conversely the kind of elaborate patient overexplanation one may lavish on the slow. How much difference do such subtleties actually make?

4 Comments to “How many times must I tell you?”

  1. Carl, that’s a really good question. Curiously, it reminds me of the time-sensitive issues that Malcolm Gladwell raises in Outliers, e.g., the demonstrable fact that star hockey players in Canadian youth leagues all tend to be born in a narrow range of months, such that they are bigger, more mature and better coordinated when they reach the official age at which they can join their first school team than kids who while the “same” age are several months younger at a time when those months make a big difference in physical development and maturity.

    Of course, if some students are short-changed by a teacher who is tired and irritable after two previous sessions of the same subject, the same might also be true for those who signed up for the early morning or just after lunch sessions when the teacher is sleepy and may be grumpy as well.

    Be that as it may be, I clicked through to the Ninja teaching post and thought, “Wow, every teacher should read this, every year.” I wish I’d had a class like that.

  2. I think that repetition cuts both ways: it can be, as you suggest, emotionally exhausting to repeat the “same” lesson to students in different contexts, but the power of recursivity in education sometimes emerges from precisely these kinds of loops. I find, for example, that I have a much better sense of the pedagogical outcomes I am looking for _after_ teaching something multiple times, or that I have a much better sense of where the troubled spots are in a difficult piece of writing. So repetition can also be your friend.

    On another note, I encountered the ninja piece in the context of your thoughts about Wineburg, which I’ve been adapting ever since for all my teaching. I liked it then, like it now. But learning how to assess, compare, and synthesize disparate sources is a huge part of what we call critical thinking, and might even be the humanities’ contribution to critical thinking.

  3. I have taught the same course to two different classes back to back. So I give the same lecture twice in a row. I’m afraid that the lecture often comes out better the second time. Teaching it a third time in a row might be a little challenging though.

  4. Thank you John! And I agree that there are actually a whole host of subtle factors that may shape student preparation and teacher delivery. I like the hockey example because it’s a little, accidental and in-itself harmless thing that ends up accruing big consequences.

    Re: sleepy/grumpy, this particular class is situated close enough to right after lunch that there may indeed be a compounding torpor effect. In other circumstances those might be more temporary conditions that don’t have much chance to accumulate damaging momentum.

    Dave and Jacob, that’s a great point about the advantages of repetition/recursion. In fact I’m going to be working through documents with that rubric all semester long to try to get spiral looping of skill, knowledge and disposition. And I also identify with needing to teach things for awhile before figuring out what I’m trying to teach. I didn’t really realize I was trying to teach the kiddos to read critically until I’d been trying to teach them to read critically for about ten years, at which point I was able to boil down the ninja thing.

    There’s a funny thing that happens though when I’m doing that same process with three groups in a row. Somehow I emotionally accept the repetition differently with one group than with multiples, probably because I can see the process trending upwards. And I don’t even mind starting over with the boulder at the bottom of the hill each semester. But starting back at the bottom of the hill after a long day is a distinct challenge.

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