Posted on October 9, 2008
Experience, the best teacher
As I’ve been writing about j-school curriculum here this week, I’ve also been pondering methods that work well in teaching. This is my 10th year as a professor (crazy!), and like most college educators, I learned on the job.
The best way to learn is by doing. That’s what I’ve concluded, and I know it’s not earth-shattering — but some students (and journalists) are dead set on what they think of as “being taught.” They want to sit in a room and have someone transmit knowledge to them right there.
I won’t say eliminate the classroom, but I do think we need to minimize its role, especially in two areas: tools and storytelling. You can talk about how to tell a story until you are exhausted, but your students will still go out and come back with something they call a story — and it’s not. You can talk about how to gather audio until the cows come home, but until your students have tried to edit their two hours of recorded audio into a 2 min. story, they will not understand anything about how to ask questions during an interview.
In the j-school, we sometimes hear reports that one student bragged to another student that he or she never interviewed a single person during the whole semester in our Reporting course — everything was fabricated, fake. As shocking as this is to a real journalist, it reflects a pattern of thinking that some students have: The means don’t matter; only the end matters. And the end is a grade, not a skill.
I’m not sure if we can do much about students who think that way. They are certainly worthless as journalists, and I hope no newsroom ever gives them a job. If I catch them, of course I throw them out. (I’d like to brand the word LIAR on their foreheads.)
Creating meaningful assignments is a huge part of teaching well. Unfortunately we also have to grade the work, so there are limitations to how much we can assign. But we can manage.
A challenge we face in the schools is the need to create assignments that teach by doing and that ALSO enable us, the teachers, to discern whether the student has actually done the work, thought it through, physically performed the task. Some students won’t succeed. After a while, a teacher has to admit that she can’t bring every student to the same place. But we can offer each student the chance to get there — if they put in the time and do the work.
As for the working journalists out there, and the journalism educators who are still saying, “I don’t know how to teach this new stuff,” I would suggest that the first step is for you to realize that most of the task of learning falls on YOU — the learner. Somebody can show you how to operate a video camera and how to shoot, and they can take an hour to do it, or 10 weeks to do it — but in the end, you are never going to learn how to shoot video unless you take a camera out and USE IT.
You’ll have to do it several times, or many times. Your first efforts will disappoint you. You will get better with practice.
No one learns how to do anything by sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher. That might be a great way to get started — but the real learning is going to happen somewhere else.