Study Hack: 5 Things Teachers wish Students Knew

I dislike school.  This may be surprising given that, despite culminating my upper-education with a Bachelor’s degree a year ago, I have not been outside the classroom for more than a summer at any point in my life.


Schools, especially those in the formal educational system, are extraordinarily imperfect tools at best.  The vast majority of growth and learning comes from personal discovery, not the one-size-fits-all prescription of a curriculum.  Still, there is a lot to be gained from school.  It is just a matter of knowing how to make school work for you.  The following are things I learned when I took a year away from my university and worked as a teacher.  When I came back I was a better student and learned more.




(above: me teaching a private lesson in Beijing back in 2007)

This TED Talk about the difference between how boys and girls learn (and why boys are struggling in school) had me thinking about the subject recently, so here are the things that helped me get more from the classroom:



1. Engage the Teacher



Want to know a secret?  Teachers often get just as bored as students.  Complacency runs abound in the classroom, almost as if us students believe our very presence will allow us to learn through osmosis.  If you talk, show an interest and engage the teacher not only will the class be more interesting for both of you, but you will learn more.


For my current experiment to learn French in a month I attend 4 hours of class a day and talk incessantly.  Pulling the class into an amusing discussion is far more interesting than following a script.  Of course, I am careful to make sure that the teacher is still able to progress through the lesson unimpeded.



2. Know how to Use the Book



I love books.  Even textbooks.  Unfortunately they are often misused in the classroom… and this applies doubly for taking notes.  When you are in the classroom the teacher’s wisdom is the most precious resource at your disposal.  I’ll never look up a word or rule first in a language class – I’ll ask the teacher to explain it (and check my understanding later).  This exposes intricacies in the material a book simply cannot convey.


Often I see students scribbling away furiously as the teacher talks.  These are often the very same students that cannot seem to comprehend the material (even though they may memorize it).  The information passes from ears to hands with little metacognition in between.


The bottom line is that a textbook is great for preview and review, but the classroom is a place for human interaction.



3. Contradict Things… Sometimes


Once, when teaching a Chinese class (like the one above), I contradicted something that the book said.  I then spent the next week attempting to reconcile the damage of the existence of two conflicting “absolute authorities.”  Culturally, China places a much greater emphasis on memorization (it is why they kick our butts at math and science), but it sacrifices the element of challenging what is accepted.  If Chinese students are too eager to believe in a single truth, though, western students are far too ready to dismiss whatever they don’t feel like learning.  The best students walk this line – demanding that the material be justified where appropriate, but accepting that certain things must simply be… learned.



4.The Material is Fun



No matter how sadistic some teachers may seem, I do not believe anybody ever entered into a teaching field thinking “this is so boring – if only I could torture others with it!”  In other words, there is something interesting about everything that can be learned.  It is a shared responsibility of student and teacher to figure out how to find those interesting nuggets in the material.


Ironically, foreign languages were my “hell subject” back in my formal education days.  It was not until I realized that language and culture are intertwined that they became interesting.  Now I spend a good chunk of my free time learning new languages not because I want to know how to say “milk” in Arabic, but because I want to be able to travel to Morocco and Egypt and make some sense of the world around me.



5. Be a Self Teacher



Here’s another secret: this blog is an experiment in self teaching.  The research I do for the weekly posts leads me on some very interesting paths of discovery.  Since graduating from my university I’ve slowly been filling in the holes in my understanding of classical literature, history and other topics.  Here are some books worth checking out if you’re interested in teaching yourself and rounding out your education:


  1. Avatar
    Randy the Yearlyglot -  April 29, 2011 - 1:58 pm 47

    I like #3. Contradict things… everything!

    Popular thinking around the Cuban Missile Crisis is that Kennedy was too popular, and he was surrounded with people who liked him. When there was bad news no one wanted to tell him. When people thought he was wrong, no one wanted to argue with him.

    Not everyone understands this, but the most successful people have learned that success requires you to surround yourself with people who do not agree with you. By increasing your odds of hearing all sides you will increase your odds of making a truly informed decision.

    My point? My point is that now, in any and every job where I work, I am “the contrarian.” When the whole company agrees, I disagree. (Within reason.) When three people tell the boss how great his idea is, I tell him what might be wrong with it. The result is, I’m not popular, but I’m always invited to the important discussions. They’re not.

    • Avatar
      Zane Claes -  April 29, 2011 - 2:03 pm 48

      Haha good point about the workplace. There’s a time for bringing people together and a time for challenging them. Most people need to be challenged more. We of the “Mr. Rogers’ generation” have been told how special we are our whole life. That’s often a bad thing.

      I’m currently drafting a post about “when to be a jerk.” Sometimes it is the only way to get work done (like when you’re working out of hostels and have deadlines to meet)…

      • Avatar
        Randy the Yearlyglot -  April 29, 2011 - 2:20 pm 49

        Most of the time, a “jerk” is simply a person who doesn’t give you what you want. We label that person as the bad one, but its really *we* who are the jerks.

        People love Lady Gaga. She can’t go into any city on earth without being surrounded by people who want something from her — an autograph, a photo, a piece of her hair, whatever. Now, what if she wanted to go to the market and buy some milk and eggs? 100 people would interrupt her to ask her for something. And if she doesn’t give it to them, she is the jerk! This is just another case where people overlook what’s popular. If everyone’s doing it, it can’t be wrong, eh?

        The same goes for any pretty female. I read once that (depending on where you live) a pretty girl may actually be “hit on” in some way as frequently as every 5 minutes. (That’s more often than men thing about sex!) Now, if she was kind to every guy who stopped her to ask her name, she’d be spending all day talking to strange men and have no life of her own. Hence, pretty girls ignore most men. And then we go around saying “oh, they’re all bitches.” Truth is, we just don’t give them room to breathe.

        Being a jerk is not only necessary sometimes, but vital. And if we’re all reaching for the stars, we should all be prepared to learn when and how to be a jerk.

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