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