Saturday, September 24, 2011

Teaching the Obvious

During World War II, the Army Air Corps trained navigators in San Antonio, Texas.  There was a critical shortage of classrooms, so a local movie theater was used for some of the instruction.  On the first day of training, the students were taken into the auditorium where a large globe was situated in the middle of the room.  While the students watched, an instructor with a long pointer indicated the lines of longitude and explained that every 15 degrees represented roughly an hour’s difference in time zones and that once you crossed the international date line, it was a different day.

Up in the balcony, another instructor was watching this whole process.  After 15 minutes of observation, he carefully watched the face of each student.  If he spied a student who appeared to be confused, a checkmark was made on a clipboard next to the student’s name.  Later that day, these students were dropped from the program and sent to an alternate training program.

The reason for this action was that after many classes, the Army had learned that the very idea of time zones and lines of longitude was a concept that students either learned in the first 15 minutes of instruction, or never really understood at all.   Any continued effort was generally fruitless and a waste of precious time. 

Here at Enema U, I sincerely wish that the same system were used in the various employee training programs for faculty and staff.  No matter what the subject, sooner or later the entire class is halted while someone, (probably a professor of Home Economics--or whatever they call it this week), has to be taught how to use a mouse.  Frankly, I wonder why we need these meetings at all.  The university is absolutely committed to teaching all academic subjects online, but somehow every time it decides to teach the faculty and staff how to fill out a simple form, this must be done in person.  Even the classes on how to teach online are taught in person….  Evidently, the administration doesn’t actually believe in online instruction, either.

On the other hand, could this be some form of advanced pedagogical technique?  Perhaps, making the class as long and boring as possible actually insures that the student will never forget the experience.  I’ve never tried this in my classroom, at least not deliberately, but I’m willing to experiment.  Here are my guidelines for the perfect boring training session.

1.      Make the training session mandatory, especially if the procedure you are teaching has not changed since the last mandatory meeting.  As you start the program, (a minimum of 15 minutes late), remind the class how important the training is.    Repeat this, but this time stress that it is very, very important.

2.      Use exactly the same jokes as last year.  This puts the audience at ease and makes them feel at home.  Then, as an ice breaker, make every single person in the room introduce himself to the room.  While pointless, it will let everyone know how valuable you consider their time.  People enjoy hearing total strangers mumbling incoherently about themselves, and--who knows--months from now, if you happen to run into the Senior Vice-President of Urinal Cake Rotation, you will know not to shake hands with him.

3.      No meeting is complete without PowerPoint--and be sure to give everyone a complete set of printed slides.  In this way, the audience can follow along with you as you carefully (and slowly) read every damn slide.  Everyone appreciates redundancy.  Everyone appreciates redundancy.  Of course, you could have just emailed this information, but group reading is so much more educational.  Besides, some of the attendees might be from the Education Department and may need help with the big words.

4.       Read slowly.  Not only will this insure that ten minutes of material will last an entire hour, but It practically guarantees that no one will actually pay much attention.  If you happen to have some tiny morsel of new information, it can be presented at this point to be certain that no one actually hears it.

5.      Have lengthy question and answer periods.  Everyone in the room will appreciate staying in the room while you explain (again) some minor point to the Professor of Home Economics who has her mouse upside down.

At this point, in any rational world, someone would come into the classroom and remove the Professor of Home Economics.  Her 15 minutes are more than up, and she will never understand the concept.  The rest of the class should be allowed to escape.   Until next year.

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