“No one graduates without…”

This weekend I attended a workshop taught by my friend Chris, and I enjoyed what he had to say.  The subject matter doesn’t really concern us here.  He’s a teacher (of college students primarily) too, but his real passion is giving talks to adults on serious subjects, and for a fee he’ll come to your house and teach what he knows.  With five students in your living room, he’ll give a series of talks and practices, and help you work through a serious amount of material in eight or nine sessions.

Two things struck me about this offer.  First, it amazed me that there were enough people willing to sign up for this course that it was worth his time.  Second, that he didn’t graduate everyone. He explained that there was a very specific set of circumstances that allowed for graduation.  It was on a pass/fail basis, and it required doing a very specific set of complex mathematical computations.  Either you could do them, or you couldn’t. And if you couldn’t learn to do them in eight weeks, then you were being either obtuse or lazy.  He would take your money as a teacher either way, but as he put it,

“No one graduates without being able to do the work.  It’s my reputation on the line, here, too.”

I found that rather refreshing.  We’re expected to make sure everyone gets through to the next level, whatever that next level is.  He, on the other hand, has devised a list of twelve or fourteen things that he can teach in one session a week over eight weeks; and if you can do those things — here’s your graduation certificate.  If you can’t do those things — well, you’re going to have to find four more people, and shell out more money, for him to come to your house and deliver the same set of eight lectures.

He said it’s a complicated kind of school with a faculty of one, that can do this sort of teaching.  It’s not likely that every school can do this, and there’s all sorts of politics involved in managing this sort of program. But ultimately, it comes down to this — you need to hear certain material, read certain material, and practice certain material.  If you can do those things, you graduate.  If you can’t, it’s not the teacher’s fault — it’s the fault of your habits of practice.  It’s your fault.

He points out that this involves a culture of personal responsibility, and personal self-discipline: which are not positively regarded in our current culture.  Sure, we talk about them all the time, but our national habits of personal self-discipline isn’t the cause of our obesity epidemic, or our failure to do well on international math and reading tests.


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  1. How interesting! I’d like to hear more next time we meet. He sounds like a good teacher, where the class can be as much of an attraction as the subject. I wonder if he keeps a “standby student” list to help hosts fill up groups.

    This is a good moment to ask a related question. In Final Exam Data you mention you’d picked 10 of Doug Lemov’s principles to start with. Would any of them help an adult improve how they learn?

    • I think he certainly works to make his subject interesting. The classes, I suspect, are a way to drum up business for his main line of work, which is consulting… you may learn quite a bit from his class but he’s hoping you’ll decide it’s too much bother to learn all the material, and then shoot $50 or $100 his way when you have a question on the subjects he teaches.

      I don’t know if he keeps a standby list, but it’s a good idea and I’ll mention it to him.

      The techniques that Doug presents to his audiences are not… They’re not learning techniques. They’re techniques on how to present information to increase awareness on the part of the students about what they should learn. So they can be used by a teacher to figure out how to present material, but not how to learn it in the first place. You could choose to develop some of what you’re learning as a solo adult into a Lemov-style presentation format, so that you could teach it as well as learn it… but that wouldn’t mean you’d learn it any better or worse than if you were just studying the material.

      Does that make sense?

    • They’re techniques on how to present information to increase awareness on the part of the students about what they should learn.

      It makes perfect sense. I can’t quiz myself for the best and second-best answers if I don’t yet know what they are. I see it’s a different category of technique than a mindmap, or explaining it to someone else, or surveying my backyard.

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