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Teaching Students Subjects That Don’t Come Natural for Them

One of the most frustrating experiences for a teacher or a parent is trying to teach something to a young person—something we know will help them succeed later—and finding them unresponsive. It matters not what the subject is:

  • Math
  • Reading
  • Science
  • Changing a tire
  • Work ethic
  • Writing and communication

I spoke to a history teacher recently who said she was “at the end of her rope.” Her students showed no interest in world history and appeared distracted during her class period. As we discussed what was happening and how she approached her subject, I noted a pattern:

  1. She kept repeating the content they failed to grasp.
  2. She raised her voice and threatened them with poor scores.
  3. She sighed and reacted in frustration when they failed or checked out.

The Curse of Expertise

At least part of this problem is what psychologists call “the curse of expertise.” This is the difficulty someone experiences explaining or teaching a subject they mastered a long time ago. The hardship is even greater if the subject came naturally to the teacher or parent. Consider this—those who are very good at something are often not the best teachers. Why? It was instinctive for them more than it was learned. It was a natural interest, skill or talent.

Take baseball for example. Some of Major League Baseball’s greatest players did not become the sport’s greatest coaches or managers. Why? The curse of expertise. If hitting came naturally, it was difficult to explain to a young ballplayer and too easy to get frustrated with that player and say, “Just watch the ball, and hit it.” The natural ones oversimplified it.

Charley Lau is known as one of the greatest and most famous professional hitting coaches. The keys to his success were quite simple:

  1. He wasn’t the greatest, most natural hitter himself. It was learned.
  2. He studied those who did hit well and found patterns to pass along.

What enabled Charley Lau to teach young athletes is that he never forgot the striving he went through when he learned to hit a baseball. He returned to it over and over. When we become impatient teachers—and too often, we do—it signals our frustration and causes them to recoil. In fact, our frustration cultivates frustration in our students. They can read our non-verbal signals of annoyance with them. We become exasperated, all the while they’re looking for cues that they are improving and pleasing to the teacher, parents, faculty, coach or employer.

The Power of the Clicker

When animal trainers train pets or even wild animals, they often use a clicker. It’s a small instrument that makes a clicking sound whenever the pet responds well. Even if that animal takes a small step in the right direction, the trainer clicks. When Ivan Pavlov experimented with dogs a hundred years ago, he verified this reality that we now call: Classical Conditioning. Pavlov observed dogs salivating when he rang a bell, knowing it was followed by a bowl of food. As soon as the dog heard the bell it began to salivate. When we use this “classical conditioning” with students, we’ll retain them in the learning experience. It could be a special word we speak, a noise, a whistle, a song stanza, you name it, but learners will associate it with success and experience what psychologist Robert Eisenberger called: “Learned Industriousness.” Suddenly, they internalize the message: Keep going. Don’t give up. You’re almost there. For students, it causes their brains to send chemicals through their bodies—positive chemicals—that progress is being made. Pavlov soon found that even when a bowl of food didn’t show up, the dog would still salivate. It sparks internal motivation.

When Teaching Something You Mastered to Disinterested Students

Below is a simple list to get you started as you attempt to motivate students to learn something they have no natural inclination to learn:

1. Remember what you felt when you first learned the topic.

Try recalling the frustration and epiphanies you had as you began. If it’s difficult, try an exercise of writing your name with your opposite hand. It’s hard because it’s unfamiliar. Bingo.

2. Remember what steps you took when you first comprehended it.

Next, jot down the sequence of steps that took place which enabled you to understand the subject matter. What phases or “mini-discoveries” built a habit of comprehension in you?

3. Test your pedagogy on a single student and note what works for them.

Then, beta-test these steps off of your own children or a niece or nephew, someone you know well. Did it help them connect even if the subject was unfamiliar? Did they suggest a new one?

4. Choose the “clicker” you’ll use to stimulate or inspire your students to more effort.

Next, select your stimuli and reward for each step of mastery in your students. What if you played a quick song or short, funny video to signal they just improved? Pick your clicker.

5. Reinforce their effort with consistent use of the clicker, along with encouragement.

Utilize this clicker to reinforce new habits of “learned industriousness.” It will take weeks, but a stimulus and some words of genuine encouragement can go a long way with your students.

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Teaching Students Subjects That Don’t Come Natural for Them