My Approach to Innovation in the Classroom
Dr. Tom Way
My teaching philosophy focuses on the idea that good teaching is good theater.
Good teaching, whether it is a PowerPoint slide, a lecture, a class meeting or an entire semester, should each follow good story structure.
Each needs a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should raise a question, with the search for the answer driving the rest of the
teaching through turning points, new revelations, explanations and ultimately arrive at a climax where it is all tied together and
the original question is answered.
The best movies, plays and movies draw us in early and hold us transfixed until the ending. There are no wasted scenes, no
useless characters, no throw-away moments. Every single word and action and moment in a good story should add to it and
move it along.
The same goes for good teaching. No wasted moments. Everything builds. Students should be transfixed, looking forward
to what is coming next. And, ideally, they should be a little sad when it is over. That's not easy to do, but when you
can get it just right, it's incredible. No nicer words can be uttered by a student to his or her teacher than, "I am so
sorry that the semester is over."
Ideas for Innovation
Toward the idea of good teaching as good theater, I have developed,
discovered, dreamed up, used and stolen as many (hopefully) innovative ideas as
I could find. Among the ones that I have found most relevant and impactful in my
classroom experience are the following. Some are goals, some are approaches,
some are feature and some are something else entirely
- Making science seem new, interesting and fun again. It is, of course, but
our culture can work pretty hard to convince us otherwise.
- Encouraging when students contribute to class in unique ways, like when they find cool online videos and articles that relate to topics in class.
I value student discoveries as much as my own, and the impact on student
learning is palpable.
- Using magic tricks to introduce or explain topics covered in class. Magic is
just science without the explanation. It engages. It draws people in. And if it
is linked to a topic in class, it sticks in a student's brain better than any
way I have found.
- Incorporating some elements of the "flipped classroom" with homework assignments that involve watching video lectures outside of class.
Hands-on collaboration during class time is so effective, and when students come
in prepared to work, it is very productive.
- Using humor to create a positive learning environment. At times my classroom
feels a little like a stand-up comedy venue. That's my background.
- Finding unique ways to get to know each student in class and finding ways to celebrate that uniqueness.
I'll frequently incorporate important events such as student birthdays,
basketball tournament games, or interesting hobbies that students might have and
tie them into our learning.
- Incorporating videos by experts in topics that are studied, providing the
best possible information by the most important people in a given subject area.
Who wouldn't want to hear the guy who invented computer security and caught the
first hackers talk about it in his own words?
- Playing music during long lab sessions. Music is part of student culture,
and seems to make the learning smoother, the atmosphere gentler and the energy
- Using the Finch robot and Python programming to teach about computational evolution.
Can students get robots to learn? Yes they can!
- Collaborating with a French professor to create an interdisciplinary course that combined French and Machine Learning.
This first-ever approach, "Loosely-Coupled Interdisciplinary Teaching"
eliminated administrative headaches and involves student across disciplines in
an very positive way.
- Creating an automated writing analysis tool for an Engineering professor to use to teach good technical report writing skills.
I'm evangelizing computer science approaches anywhere I can to help other
professors to their jobs more easily.
- Maximizing exam prep time through guided study techniques. I create a
detailed study guide that students use as they prepare for an exam. The real
learning happens while students create their own exhaustive study guides!
- Providing a comprehensive class web site with literally every handout, assignment, video and software program used in class.
Anytime you need anything for class, 24x7, you can get it. And it isn't hidden
behind a silly Blackboard firewall.
- Google "Tom Way", click on the first link and you've found me. From there,
click on the link to your class and you're in!
- Being very organized, starting each class with the same date, goals for
meeting, upcoming due dates, etc.
- Making hard work seem fun. It is, but students sometimes need to be shown it
is true before they'll believe it.
- Using interesting, unusual and sometimes quirky software tools. Some of the
best moments are when things go wrong and we have to problem-solve our way to
- Teaching students who never ever thought they ever write computer code how to write computer code
That's all there is to it. So simple!
I need a nap.
last updated: 11/22/13