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.

10 Comments on “Experience, the best teacher

  1. I was thinking about this recently as well. I like to call it the “wash, rinse, repeat” method of teaching. Show them how to use the tools and then spend a lot of time getting them to use the tools.

  2. Amen to the main task of learning falls on the learner. My goal (in high school) is to give them the tools, the instruction on how to properly use the tools, examples, and then set them loose. Those who do the work earn a grade.

    Strangely, those who forget about the grade and take off and fly get the best grades. They stop trying to please me and begin to teach themselves.

    (Only one or two a term unfortunately)

  3. Pingback: Wash, rinse, repeat – Innovation in College Media

  4. Great post, Mindy. Learning how to shoot video for me was a tough but rewarding experience in Roanoke and something I’m happy I stuck with because it’s given me the tools to tell stories that never would have occurred to me when I was just a print reporter.

    A lot of the motivation to keep learning and to keep pushing – especially, after a number of failed attempts – came from being able to share that experience of failing and getting back up again with my newsroom mentor, Seth Gitner, who let me fail (over and over again) and learn for myself what worked and didn’t work.

    In college, I had professors like that who ripped my work apart and shredded my stories to pieces (sometimes, literally) because I knew they were paying attention and didn’t let me off the hook easily. That’s something I think newsrooms (and colleges) need more of: people who are willing to let you fail when you’re learning with the hope of having you get back on the saddle again with confidence to do something better.

    You likely won’t produce your best work the second, third or fourth time around. But at the end of the day, if you got that professor or newsroom mentor who values and charts your growth – not your final grade or winning some journalism award – that, I strongly believe, is what makes this job of being a journalist fun and all the more rewarding. And I think your audience will see that in the quality of the stories you show.

  5. You’re absolutely right. I learned far more about Flash by hacking ActionScript on Sunday nights than I did sitting in class.

  6. @Danny – You do mean the Sunday nights before the work was due in class, on Monday, yes? 🙂

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  8. Good timing: I just threw out all the prepared exercises for the first-year Writing Skills class and told me students to go out and interview someone interesting, or with an interesting story to tell. I’m betting they’ll better learn the writing skills by drafting and polishing a story that is meaningful and interesting to them.

  9. @Mark Hamilton – Gosh, I hope you specifically told them they cannot interview their roommate.

  10. Pingback: Teaching vs. Learning | Teaching Journalism Today

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