Things I Learned From Buying a House #3: Demystification

My husband and I are taking a home repair class, because since we moved into our brand new very old house, we’ve been paying people a lot of money to do things we could probably do ourselves.  The class defies some current wisdom about what makes for “good teaching.”  And it’s great.  And I’m learning some things about myself as a teacher.

This home repair course involves almost no hands-on practice.  Our teacher tells us things.  We take notes.  We ask questions, and he answers them.  Last week we actually got to do some stuff for the first time – he had a friend come in to show us about wall construction, and we got to drill in some screws and apply a bit of plaster.  Otherwise, the best we can do is ply him with the details of our own roofs, toilets and hairline wall cracks and ask for advice.

You wouldn’t think this was an ideal format for a skills-based class.  Nevertheless, we are learning TONS.  We now know the basics of how a house is constructed.  We know what the insides of faucet fixtures look like.  We know why the walls of our bathroom look like they are running in rivulets even when they’re not.  We know the difference between caulking and grout, and which we should apply around our windows.

Perhaps most importantly, we know that we probably shouldn’t panic about the things that make us panic.  Things like: how can I put up a shelf without puncturing a pipe?  What do those little fissures on the foundation wall mean?  How can I stain my deck properly? If my house makes noise, does that mean it’s about to fall down?

A huge part of learning is about demystification.  Our home repair course is mainly about that: a house is just a thing, and it has a lot of parts that are pretty easy to understand.  It will get damaged, and then you need to fix it.  Pipes will break, ceilings will fall in, roofs will need to be replaced.  You just do it.

Of course, ideally, the demystification is not just intellectual.  Drilling a fourth screw into a mock-up wall, because the first three went in cock-eyed, makes drilling a screw into your own wall much less scary.  You get to know how it feels when the screw meets its mark, so you’ll know that feeling next time.

Nevertheless, hearing how something should work can be a good first step.  Then you can go home and try it, because at least you know the basics.

Is there an equivalent phenomenon for more “intellectual” skills? I’m learning a lot about home repair without getting much practice in the classroom.  Is it possible to learn a lot about English without practicing reading and writing?  Are there ways to demystify these activities for students so that they’ll be more likely to take the plunge into doing them on their own time?

Maybe it helps that my home repair teacher is hilariously entertaining, making jokes about how “water is the anti-Christ” and “What does Ikea mean in Swedish? Divorce.”  If I were funnier, would that make my subject matter less intimidating so my students would learn better?

Have you ever been scared to do something until someone taught you it wasn’t so hard?  Have you ever found that a little knowledge takes the terror out of trying something new?  How do you demystify your subject matter for your students?

Image by Melodi2

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9 responses

  1. “If I were funnier, would that make my subject matter less intimidating…”
    A line that probably resonates with many teachers. When I was learning to teach (while teaching) at my English school, I observed another teacher (an energetic Francophone from Montreal) a few times. I envied her impressive reserves of humour and vivaciousness. Why couldn’t I be as zestful?
    Watching her teach was an education, and I certainly learned from it. But I am my own teacher, and the way I teach is part of me. I love to watch other teachers. I steal techniques, frequently, and give them my own spin, but I can’t play at being someone else. I’m a nice teacher, a little too forgiving, goofy, thoughtful, and very occasionally cranky.
    I’m sure you have gifts in the classroom that you don’t fully acknowledge. This very blog is evidence of a curious, probing mind and a desire to improve and to share knowledge and ideas – all of which are great qualities in a teacher.

    • SJ: I agree: we have to be who we are. And sometimes I’m surprised to learn that some of my students do find me funny, and interesting, and so forth. What’s more, although my husband and I find our hr teacher hilarious, it’s clear that not everyone in the room does. So we just keep on doing what we do, and hoping for the best…

  2. Wonderful post, with lots to think about. I have had many learning experiences like the one you’re describing. I do think there is plenty to be learned from a lecture-type format, but that there are features that must be present for it to be truly effiective:

    1. Age of learners. You’re in a group of adults, I assume. 6-year old would
    need to be much more hands on. But the principle of balance between
    presenting information and using/practicing skills based on the information, is
    really the same. 6-year olds are taught letter-sound correspendences for
    example, then they practice the correspondences, then they use that skill in
    decoding words.

    2. Motivation. Your classmates, and you, have a concrete reasont to pay
    attention, take notes, and learn. You know what the payoff is going to be.
    Students at earlier ages, whatever their motivation might be based on, must
    be able to see that payoff coming either in the near-term or in the distance.
    Not every minute of every day, of course, but students always need to feel
    they are getting somewhere either for the love of learning or from extrinsic
    reasons. Graduate students and professional students put up with tons of
    drudgery (both in class and in out-of-class study) in their courses of study
    because they have that motivating goal.

    3. The students do have some background knowledge. Your teacher isn’t trying
    to describe a hammer, or the law of gravity, or the reason to have a non-
    leaky roof.

    4. The teacher clearly has some delivery skills that not all lecturers have!

    5. The students have their own labs (houses) in which they will practice the
    skills.

    That said, the main one is motivation. It definitly takes some sense of progress to keep students engaged when the instructional format is lecture.

    • EB: it’s true: when we add up the facets of a teaching situation that we actually have control over, they amount to just a small corner of the whole picture! So many things are out of our hands.

  3. I dropped out of university twenty-five years ago, to work on old houses. Beats hell out of being an English major (for me), and I still live just a short walk from those classrooms. May I recommend The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. Chris gets at why we build things, rather that how. BTW, my vote; I believe you are right to be firm with your students. Their need for attention shouldn’t be allowed to supersede the other students. Really enjoy your thoughtful posts. JML

  4. I’m new to home ownership and totally understand the “intellectual” versus physical divide. I think learning a language is the same way…you can read it, practice it, but when you get out in streets, surrounded by the language that is not your own, it can all be really intimidating and cause you to freeze up.

  5. I just discovered your blog today and there is no end of work I am now shirking. I’m forwarding this link to my husband who dreads home repair and channels Groucho Marx at work to keep his high school English students interested. It’s a performance art; you do whatever works to make the light bulbs turn on inside their heads.

  6. I think you are confusing “funny” with “approachable” here. Having a good sense of humor–and sharing it with your students–demonstrates confidence, ease, and approachability.

    If you do this, your students won’t react to your jokes, but to their perceived motive forces–your approachability.

    Plus, it is a good hedge against the common misconception that intelligent people, thoughtful people, are ever-serious people.

    If you have a good sense of humor, share this with your students. If all you have are bad puns, perhaps find other ways to demonstrate confidence and approachability.

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