Lesson from hairdresser

Techniques to improve teaching could be learned from a myriad of simple life experiences encountered through interactions with people in non-teaching professions. This is possible if teachers keep their eyes open and connect real-life phenomena to their own teaching experiences in the classroom.

Such was my own experience during a recent visit to a hair salon. Until that day, I held the opinion that I could not learn anything significant about teaching from a hairdresser. On the contrary and to my pleasant surprise, I found out that even hairdressers could teach educators such as myself a thing or two about teaching and being an affective teacher.

A closer look

A typical hairdresser is responsible to attend to his/her customer’s request to cut, color or style his/her hair. However, customers do not usually pay attention to all the detailed procedures, elaborate efforts, techniques, tools and equipments utilized by a hairdresser to perform his tasks.

For example, a simple haircut is done through the ingenious choice and use of a combination of different types of scissors (e.g., hair cut scissors, hair thinning scissors, professional hair scissors, hair shears scissors and stylist shears scissors). This could be observed if one pays close attention to the number of scissors used for even a simple haircut. One would also realize that each pair of scissors plays a distinct role and fulfills a specific purpose in the whole process of giving a haircut.

As such, each individual customer is treated differently and approaching the same task may require a hairdresser a totally different strategy and plan.

Eureka!

This observation led me to thinking about the seriousness and importance of treating every child as a unique individual who constantly requires personalized attention from teachers to fulfill his/her learning needs. If hairdressers typically differentiate the act of cutting hair for his customers, how much more should teachers consider differentiating instruction for their students?

Pre-requisite

Before teachers start believing in the need for differentiation and hence acting upon it, they need to accept the fact that every child is different and requires different types of stimulation to learn. Psychology teaches us that children differ with regards to their general background knowledge, socio-cultural and linguistic experiences, subject specific knowledge, language proficiencies and academic skills, interests and motivation to learn.

By accepting and acknowledging the fact that children are different, teachers would be able to deal with the challenges that are inherent in the profession. Often, teachers enter into the profession thinking that uniform treatment, approach and coping skill would suffice to succeed in the classroom. However, upon entering into the field and encountering children’s individual differences, they experience burnout.

In most cases, teacher burnout is not caused by their lack of competency. Rather, it is due to their unwillingness to accept that children are different and actively work toward meeting them at their own level of academic responsiveness.

The benefit

Having said that, it must be borne in mind that differentiated instruction promotes knowledge transfer, the ultimate aim of education! This happens because teachers who utilize differentiation teach not only content but more importantly, the individual child. Secondly, teachers who customize instructional approaches deliver content more effectively by knowing how to motivate each child effectively.

Techniques

Accomplishing this does not require extensive training or workshops. Teachers could, in their own simple way challenge every learner by providing materials and tasks (addressing a curriculum standard or a set of learning objectives) at varied levels of difficulty, with varying degrees of scaffolding, through multiple instructional groups (in the same class) and with time variations.

Key to effective implementation of the above-mentioned differentiation techniques is constructive classroom management, which could be easily established by setting up and adhering to a set of norms that everyone agrees upon for mutual academic benefit.

Teaching sincerity

Experience teaches us that those who are sincere in executing whatever small, seemingly insignificant tasks are entrusted with greater responsibilities. These are the individuals who are more likely to succeed and live fulfilling lives in the long run.

People in general feel comfortable dealing with sincere individuals. Employers seek to find sincere workers who maximize work-time and produce expected results; men and women seek to find sincere companions to share their lives with and to keep the spark of love burning for a lifetime; teachers feel more motivated and encouraged when students show sincerity in learning and participation in class; mothers untiringly nurture and care for their infants out of sincere love for them; and individuals constantly attempt to be sincere to their inner selves so that they do not experience cognitive dissonance that may lead to insanity.

It pays to be sincere

In other words, sincerity is found in every aspect of life and is constantly sought after from infancy until old age. Sincerity is the factor that keeps human relationships alive and afresh. It is the key to healthy development of trust, self-esteem and eventually, the sense and actual experience of achievement.

A sincere individual values himself, takes the tasks assigned seriously and seeks ways to execute his responsibilities with utmost diligence and perfection. It is when an individual chooses the path of insincerity that he often exhibits the characteristics that communicate the “I don’t care” attitude.

This attitude is the main reason for failure, at school, work or home. Any enterprise founded on human relationship only works when the people involved care for each other and their individual and collective responsibilities.

Considering the aforementioned line of reasoning, it is worth teaching sincerity more deliberately at home and school. Lessons on sincerity address the psychological well-being of students as well as increase their chances of success in the future. Developing sincere students would mean that the schools and home join hands to create likable individuals who would attract others and success into their lives.

Defining sincerity

Sincerity is defined as being real, inside and out. Since our actions and words reflect inner feelings, a healthy personality would require that the former is in-sync with the latter. In other words, what one does or say must be in harmony with how he feels. A sincere person always allows his inner feelings to be mirrored in his interactions with the outside world.

Innate tendency

Children are naturally sincere. That’s why infants cry when they are hungry, wet or feel unsafe. This is also why a very young child does not know how to tell lies. However, as time passes children are taught out of sincerity by adults who demand more (untimely) mature behavior and administer punishment for improper behavior (improper according to adult standards).

As a result, children learn early in life that it pays to fake behaviors, feelings and experiences. They become so good at it that they fake sickness (usually labeled as psychosomatic illness) to avoid school, change grades in the report card to avoid parents’ wrath and fall prey to group pressures.

In my opinion, this is also the number one reason why teenagers face identity crisis. Years of denying critical truths about their inner selves and external experiences deprives them of the ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.

How to teach it?

According to Dr. Helaine Sheias, executive director of Life Empowerment Action Program in San Francisco Bay area, “teaching sincerity means helping and guiding children to develop their innate ability to simply be real and be themselves in relationships with others and themselves.”

Regularly reinforcing, rewarding and celebrating sincerity in action (at home and school), narrating stories about sincere people, discussing their successes and modeling sincerity are examples of ways to teach this valuable quality to children. Displaying quotes such as, “It is those who are true to themselves and others who overcome the challenges of life” at strategic locations at home and school would also help.

Redefining real-life learning

Although transfer of learning is the ultimate aim of education, every one is aware that it is a daunting task to accomplish. Educators utilize various approaches, strategies and contents to convince learners about the need to use what they learn at school in real-life.

However, most students do not engage in thinking about application of knowledge because they know that their success or failure in learning is not necessarily measured by their willingness and ability to apply what they learn. Rather, the greatest payoff is in the ability of students to reproduce what they learned from the textbook and teacher.

In the end, students simply go through the motion of schooling for the sake of it, without a greater involvement and personal identification with what education really means to them.

Examples

For example, it is common for a teacher-trainer to get e-mails from his/her former students asking for help in providing ideas on audio-visual materials, teaching methods, disciplining students, etc. These are the same students who have had the opportunity to work directly with the teacher-trainer, but took it for granted. They choose to learn (superficially) to pass tests. They are satisfied as long as they could graduate with a degree that they wrongly believe would make them fit for work.

It is only when they actually start working as a teacher that they realize and regret about all the missed opportunities to truly prepare themselves to face the challenges and demands of work. While it is still not too late, it does cause a lot of inconvenience, and in worst-case scenario, costs them their jobs.

A former student recently sent an e-mail asking me to coach him to teach the course, General Psychology. This is the first time he has been asked to teach the subject to a group of undergraduate students. He expressed hesitance and a lack of confidence to deliver the subject as it was not his major at college. However, he admitted taking a few psychology courses as electives. He did not pay much attention to what was happening while in class, and took the subject lightly.

This demonstrates a lack of awareness of how things operate in real-life. While the student possesses a great desire to succeed in the future, he/she did not realize that mastering subjects like psychology goes a long way to develop one’s own personality as well as increases the opportunities to diversify what he/she could offer an organization.

Painting a better picture

Students need to become fully aware of what it means to prepare themselves for the world of work. It is not enough for them to have a partial understanding of what awaits them. They need to know the whole picture, in its truest form and shape.

As educators, we are responsible to provide for this fundamental learning need. Without such an understanding, a great number of students will continue to take their learning experiences for granted and would engage in superficial learning to merely pass tests.

Call for action

For long, schools have been comfortable providing simulated real-life environments to students. But for effective application of knowledge, students must be allowed to learn in non-simulated settings.

In other words, students should learn at work place, with the help of working-mentors. These mentors would be able show them how concepts, knowledge and skills learned at school apply to various tasks at work place.

Just like one cannot be expected to learn how to swim without getting into a pool and trying it out first hand, no lesson could be effectively understood unless its application across real-life settings and situations are experienced by the learner himself.

Further reading

Such is the working model of a radically reformed education system advocated by the Big Picture schools in the United States. For more information about the Big Picture schools, visit http://www.bigpicture.org/