When Less Is More

When Less is More by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo by Chris Owen, Available at flickr.com

We have all been its victims at one time or another. We have all endured the agony of a mind-numbing torrent of pedagogic dysentery. You know what I’m talking about… the teacher or speaker who just won’t shut up. As the words upon words upon words plop out of his mouth, your mind sinks into a state of hibernation as it awaits the hour of its liberation.

What causes this sadistic behavior on the part of instructors? One thing is the commonly held notion that a teacher must “cover everything.” Since teaching is such a crucial aspect of leadership and since this behavior is so widespread, I’m taking this opportunity to encourage you cast off your addiction to this pernicious idea.

I used to spend sleepless hours preparing everything I would say for the entire period of an upcoming instructional opportunity. I felt compelled to create a complete outline for every classroom experience. At some point in my career, however, I found myself in the middle of a situation where it became literally impossible to continue this behavior. Suddenly, I was unable to prepare a complete outline for class!

I quickly learned that less is sometimes more. I learned to zero in on a few key concepts and help students understand those concepts instead of trying to “cover everything.” I started using more simulation and less lecture, more dialogue and less monologue, more student-directed activity and less professor-directed activity, more application and less recitation, more exploration and less indoctrination, more concrete examples and less abstract theory.

Today, my most important goal for time spent in the classroom is that my students have at least one “Aha” moment. If I can aid them in flipping on the light switch in one area, I feel I have been successful for that day. I am no longer tyrannized by the urgency to “cover everything.” I have finally understood that covering everything is an impossible and foolish objective. Why is this so?

  1. First, the human mind has been created to protect itself from power surges. It can only take in one major learning experience at a time. So, once it has reached that limit, all the rest is a waste your time and that of your students.
  2. Second, the idea of “covering everything” implies that by merely verbalizing or showing something in a PowerPoint presentation, you have really “covered” it. Understanding is a far more holistic process than that. A new idea needs to be approached from many angles and using the various senses before understanding can take place. And even then, it is still not understood until it is fused with experience. So, when professors insist on “covering” everything in their outline, they are really just fulfilling a need within themselves rather than focusing on the need of their students.
  3. Third, by attempting to prepare a comprehensive treatment in a class session, the professor is negating his or her intrinsic capability to think and draw from their own past education and experience and come up with helpful–on the spot–insight. On the other hand, by pushing yourself beyond your human capacity to prepare, you are forced to trust your intuition and the synergy of your combined experience and education.
  4. Fourth, by insisting that you “cover everything,” you are in effect ignoring the needs and interests of your students. We all have been victims of this kind of classroom despotism. You know the kind, they have their agenda and they stick to that agenda regardless of your student’s state of mind or interest. I remember once sitting through the agony of such a professor. It was so bad that all the students were texting each other things like: “Who is this guy?” “When will he ever shut up?” “Help! I’m stuck in a time warp.”

At one point, it became so unbearable that I raised my hand to ask a question, hoping that this might ignite some relief in the form of dialogue. The professor gave a curt reply and, without skipping a beat, went right on talking, almost from the exact word where he had left off after having been so rudely interrupted by a student’s question.

 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be that guy. I want to allow for the flow of student need and interest to carry the information like a river carries the logs of a lumber operation. The one-Aha-moment-per-class rule of thumb helps me to keep things in perspective and frees me and my students from the tyranny of the “outline.” Suddenly, teaching becomes an exciting adventure, with each class taking you into new territory.

What has been your experience in higher education? What are some ways you enhance the learning experience of your students?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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