Friday, October 12, 2012

Seeing Beneath the Surface...

Few people scratch the surface, much less exhaust the contemplation of their own experience.    
~ Randolph Bourne

A classic topic of study in Psychology is finding the differences between experts and novices in an area.  (Uh...  Is this a trick question?  Yeah, I know - what can I say?  Psychology is like that...)  

In one study, psychologists gave people a bunch of physics problems and asked them to sort them into piles based on their similarity.  (I guess they got tired of asking the people to solve the problems and discovering - brace yourself for a shock - that expert physicists can solve more of the problems than beginning physics students!)  

Sorting problems into piles seems like an odd thing to do, but it turned out that something really interesting happened.  The beginning physics students organized the problems based on what type of situation they dealt with - all of the "pulley" problems went into 1 pile, all of the "inclined plane" problems went into another pile, etc.  That sounds pretty reasonable, right?

But the expert physicists created piles that had pulley problems and inclined plane problems and other types of problems all mixed up.  

What the heck?  

Well, it turns out that there are several basic physics formulas that can be applied to problems across all different types of situations.  And the expert physicists were putting all of the problems that could be solved by 1 formula into 1 pile (regardless of whether they were pulley problems or inclined plane problems, etc.) and putting all of the problems that could be solved by a 2nd formula into a 2nd pile, etc.  

So they were doing some pretty darn smart after all...  (As one would expect, given that they were experts!)  

Now, what's interesting is that when you look at each physics problem, the situation jumps right out at you - there are pictures, so it's obvious if it is a problem with a pulley or a problem with an inclined plane - anyone can see that.  It's on the surface.  

But, knowing which formula to use to solve the problem is not obvious - it didn't say that anywhere in these problem - you have to read the problem and then figure out which formula will apply.  This information is hidden - it is beneath the surface of the problem.  

And the researchers concluded that experts can see beneath the surface, to the hidden, deeper and more meaningful (well, more useful) aspects of the problems.  

So, what does this have to do with me and my life?  

Well, recently I ran across another opportunity to teach ESL - with an online company.  Teachers can work part-time, from the comfort of their homes, generally on their own schedule...  And they get paid!  ;)

Sounds good, right?  

Of course, I don't have the time to pick up any more commitments - paid or not.  But I couldn't resist looking into it - who knows, maybe this is the kind of thing I could do when I'm retired, to earn some loose change to support my sewing habit!  ;)

So I started their certification process - perused the curricular materials on their web site and sat in on a handful of their online classes.  The materials were good.  The teachers were good.  Even using the existing materials, the teachers were able to put their personal stamps on their sessions.  

On the surface (Ah, finally!  it looks like a payoff is in sight from that long physics story...)  it seemed like a great opportunity.  

But something just didn't feel right to me.  And it took me a while to figure out what it was...  

You see, the web site simply has online classes going on all the time and students pop online whenever they want and attend whatever class happens to be going on at that time, being taught by whatever teacher happens to be teaching it.  

There is no way for a student to stick with a particular teacher.  There is no way for a teacher to meet with the same, small group of students regularly.  

It's like a bunch of "ships-passing-in-the-night" moments all strung together...  

And for me, teaching my ESL class is more than just giving lectures and knowing that I am helping generic people somewhere.  It's about building personal relationships with my students and building a little community of friends (who trust each other and support each other and care about each other) in my classroom.  

I like knowing that D. passed her U.S. citizenship test last summer and that M. is studying to take hers this fall.  And I like being able to ask her each week how her studying is going...

I like hearing R.'s stories about the crazy things that his young son is doing - and I love it when his adolescent daughter (who lives in Puerto Rico with his ex-wife) comes to stay with him over her spring break and he brings her to class with him.  

I love hearing about B.'s plans for her trip to visit family in Cube and then getting to see the pictures when she returns.  

I like it when, during the year, we come up with our own in-jokes - and sometimes in the middle of a class we all just look at each other and know that we are thinking about the same thing and we all start laughing - and no one else knows why...  

And I really love it when some of my students who have completed a year with me and moved on to the next highest class still take the time to stop by and say Hi! to me and the students who are just 6 months behind them...  

So, I doubt this makes me an expert, but now I am able to see a little bit deeper into what it is that I love about teaching my ESL class...  ;)


  1. Ah, yes, the personal touch is much more meaningful!

    1. Hey Mary! I'm sure that online program is helping a lot of people, but this way is definitely more meaningful - and more rewarding and more enjoyable - for me. :)