Does teaching get harder over time? I am gonna say yes. Not because I am getting older over time. Of course I am, but because students’ brains now are different than students’ brains then – when I started teaching. This revelation hit me as I was watching Robert Saplosky discussing emergent phenomena. The models that I have in my brain, Saplosky would say of the reductionism type, are different than the models that students are developing in their brains – swarm intelligence, local rules, emergence phenomena, complex dynamic systems, cellular automata. And importantly young people’s brains are adapting to these phenomena unconsciously, just by virtue of living in the modern world.
In my last post I alluded to this evolutionary process (evolving models for the concept of rate of change) without having the context that Saplosky provides. Now I think I understand something important. Younger faculty relate better to their students not necessarily because they go to the same movies or listen to the same music, but because they solve problems the same way and use the same analogical models. Younger faculty and students understand each other better because they have grown up in more nearly the same cultural environment.
Where does this leave me and other middle-aged instructors? I think we need to listen very carefully to our students’ suggestions and adapt to their needs creatively and with an open heart. We need to think deeply about our course rules and processes and be willing the change those things that come mindlessly from tradition. We need to know why we do what we do and be able to justify it to other people particularly students. We need to think about our principles and be sure they do not come from our prejudices.
Veteran instructors know this intrinsically and make changes in their courses accordingly. What the Sapolsky lecture has done for me is to make me aware of what I don’t know and can’t intuit: my students’ problem solving models. They are different than mine. Mine are logical and reductive. Theirs are something else that I am struggling to understand.