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How to Inspire and Motivate Students

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By Asad Zaman

Lecture for Teachers by Dr. Asad Zaman on 24th Jan 2017 at PIDE, Islamabad. This lecture is for teachers; See “The Ways of the Eagles” for a lecture directly addressed to students, to motivate and inspire them, A detailed 3300 word summary of the lecture in English is given below. See also: link to one hour video-taped lecture in URDU.

Mesmerized by the spell of Western expertise, we are trapped by the illusion that they are the experts in every field, and the best we can do is to be second-rate followers. In fact, the educational methods in use in the West are extremely bad, and it is possible for us to make dramatic improvements in substance and style of teaching. By increasing the efficiency of our educational methods, we can change the world. Imagine producing world class experts of Nobel Laureate calibre at PIDE!

Can it be done? Can we create world-class experts, despite meagre resources and students with weak background and preparation, in Pakistan?  YES: It can be done.

What is needed is INSPIRATIONAL TEACHING. Every student is precious, and has within him/her all the genius of Al-Ghazali, Ibn-ul-Haytham, Ibne Sina, al Farabi, Ibn-e-Khaldun and others. If we can light the fire of the thirst for knowledge in their hearts, they can do the rest – we only need to create motivation and inspiration. So the question of primary importance is: How can we become inspiring teachers?

Since I am addressing teachers here, my first task is to explain what they (the teachers) will gain by improving their teaching? Some of the answers to this very important question are:

  • I will acquire mastery, expertise and depth of knowledge! I will be able to transmit this knowledge to students.
  • This knowledge has the potential to change my life, and to change the life of my students. Nothing is more precious than the opportunity given to me in form of time of students eager to learn. Nothing is more deeply satisfying than utilizing this opportunity to transmit the treasure of knowledge, the most valuable gift in the collective heritage of mankind.

The FIRST STEP (as demonstrated) is to explain to the student what benefits he/she will derive from learning. But to do this, we must reject the Western message that the only purpose of education is to get jobs and earn money. Instead, we must turn to Islamic models of education, which are radically different.  It is a fundamental Islamic principle that the value of all actions depend on intentions. Seeking wealth from education is a poisonous philosophy. INSTEAD: we must learn and teach Tawakkul – Allah T’aala will provide for all those who trust Him – Instead of worrying about earnings, worry about how to serve Allah best. We must teach students to make intention to use knowledge to serve humanity, for the sake of the love of Allah. This turns our teaching and the students studying into worship.

I usually cover the underlying principles of an Islamic education, and how this is radically different from a Western education in my first lecture in any course (for an URDU lecture, see Intro to IE – for an English Lecture, see Intro Stats). Although the points covered in these lectures are extremely important, I will not repeat them here. Instead, I will focus on just one difference: that between Useful & Useless Knowledge. Whereas the West consider ALL knowledge as being useful, at least potentially, our Prophet Mohammad SAW asked Allah for useful knowledge, and sought protection from useless knowledge. The defining characteristic of useful knowledge is that it enters the heart. This will be explained further below.

Surprising as it may seem, current Western education is FULL of useless knowledge. By removing useless knowledge from our imitation of Western curriculum, we can MASSIVELY increase efficiency of education. An analogy is useful in understanding this point. Consider teaching driving versus teaching how to manufacture the engine of a car. The second is extremely difficult, involving teaching a huge amount of theoretical and applied engineering. Yet it is of very little use in the real world. Of far greater practical importance is teaching how to DRIVE a car. An excellent engineer may be a very poor driver, and an excellent driver may have no knowledge of how the engine works. Most of our Western education consists of teaching students about the theory of the engine, without giving them any experience in driving. If we can CHANGE the substance of our teaching to MINIMIZE theory to the essentials necessary, and MAXIMIZE practically relevant applications, this will create a revolution in our pedagogy, and also create motivation and excitement in our students, when they see that what we teach has practical relevance.

To explain this further, consider my own training in Econometrics. I was trained at Stanford University by world leading experts, and spent ten years doing pure theory, without any concern for applications. When I first started paying attention to applications, I realized that the theory I had been taught had no relation to the applications. The assumptions we made in theory made our theoretical calculations and mathematics elegant, but were not valid in real world. As I started exploring the mis-match between the theories (both economic and econometrics) that I had studied at Stanford, I found many others who had made the same intellectual journey. David Freedman started his career by writing extremely complex mathematical papers heavily oriented to theoretical statistics. Later, when he got exposed to some real world data problems, he realized that the theories he had studied did not apply. Eventually, he wrote a book entitled Statistics, which is radically different from all existing textbooks. It does not contain a single mathematical formula, since Freedman that formulae created obstacles to understanding. Instead, the entire book is concerned with analyzing how statistics is used to solve real world problems. That is, Freedman switched to teaching students how to drive, instead of teaching them the intricacies of how car engines are constructed. I have followed a similar approach in developing courses in Statistics and Econometrics which I have made available online; I encourage all teachers to use these materials to develop their own courses.

Indian mathematician CK Raju has said the same thing about the teaching of Calculus in the West. The Western courses focus on the formalities, but do not teach students the concepts and the intuition, and do not teach students how calculus could be used to solve any practical real-world problem. If we change the focus to applications of calculus, students can be taught much more effectively and rapidly. The first problem in implementing this approach is that YOU – the teachers – have not been taught how to drive. Your own courses were purely theoretical, and typically teachers do not know how the material they are teaching, is used in real-world applications. When we claim to teach useful knowledge to our students, we must first learn HOW the material we are teaching is actually of practical value, beyond helping students to pass the exams. To give my own example, even though I received an education at the top institutions, I developed my educational approach and subject matters by UNLEARNING what I was taught at MIT and Stanford. I was taught to value mathematics, theory, and proofs, and like David Freedman, I realized that these were all obstacles in the path of understanding. I had to create course contents myself, by focusing on real world problems, and to develop theories only to the extent required in context of solving these problems. The first problem we face in becoming effective teachers is to learn to relate our subject to concrete real world problems of importance which would motivate the students.

When we adopt a new approach, we will face a second major problem:  the students are not familiar with this new approach, which requires them to think and understand. Massive doses of rote learning have led students to lock up their minds, to stop thinking, and to merely repeat lecture notes without understanding. They have made repeated attempts to understand complex subject matters, presented in complex ways, and they have given up on making such efforts. They have lost confidence in their own ability to learn and understand. Education has become a game where the teacher drops hints about the questions they will get on the exam, and they attempt to catch them and replicate them on the exams. No thinking or understanding is involved in the process. To the best of their knowledge, the material they are taught is one-shot; only useful for passing the exam, and to be forgotten after the course.

To re-engage the students, to get them to participate in trying to understand is a difficult and new process. Learning and understanding concepts is very different from rote learning. I tell my students that TAKING NOTES is deadly; lectures are being recorded, and so you can listen to them again if necessary. But at the moment, I would like you to understand what I am saying directly. If you concentrate and make the effort, and try to understand, you may succeed. But even if you fail to understand – you WILL NOT be able to understand by reading your notes, taken without comprehension. Students have the habit of taking notes, because they are used to the idea that lectures are not meant to be understood. This habit, and many other habits based on rote-learning patterns, must be broken, in order to create direct engagement with students in the classroom.

How can we get students to put in the efforts that they must put in, in order to achieve understanding. We must make sure that the subject matter is relevant and important and useful, but this is not enough. In order to Inspiring students, You must BELIEVE in your students. Believe that each one of them has the potential to change the world. Instead of being the MASTER, you should feel that you have been hired by the Emperor to teach the Princes of creation – they are all potentially far superior to you. You have been chosen as a teacher of princes; that is Tremendous Honor, AND a Tremendous Responsibility.  Remember the Hadeeth that people are like MINES, each contains rare and precious gems. You should not fail to appreciate your students, even if they lack talent in some dimension. Undoubtedly, they make up for this lack by having extra-ordinary talents in some other dimension. As a teacher, you must value the time of your students. Every minute that you have been given of their time is extremely precious, and you must strive to make it worthwhile for them, by giving them valuable educations. We all know cases where students have been inspired by chance remarks of their teacher to change their lives. Every minute of contact is valuable. But teachers must make sure that WHAT we are teaching is valuable. Make sure that HOW we teach the subject matter CONVEYS something valuable to the students. At the end of the hour, students should have acquired knowledge that they did not have before coming to class. Students should be inspired and motivated.

How can we fulfill these huge responsibilities. Since personally, I am not capable of achieving these goals, I ask Allah for His help – He is the FIRST TEACHER. Allamal Insan Ma Lam Ya’lam. Before entering class, teachers should make dua to ask Allah to enable them to fulfill this heavy responsibility.

When we make these efforts to become better teachers, many obstacles will appear in our path. It may seem that students do not appreciate our efforts, and they wish for us to go back to old and familiar patterns of teaching, with which they are comfortable. We have to understand student psychology, in order to motivate them. A major problem is the “Fear of Failure” – what if I try to understand, and I fail to understand? That will prove that I am an idiot – better not to find out. Also, I have tried to understand things so many times before, and have never been successful. Why would it be different this time? Students are reluctant to try to learn concepts. Memorization is easy. Sure Shot. No risk. Learning is difficult BUT it is very rewarding. You need to give positive feedback to students; encourage them; praised them for taking small steps – as that will build the confidence they need to take the bigger steps. Also encourage them by telling them about the value of knowledge, and why it is worthwhile for them to make the extra effort required to learn concepts.

“Learning how to drive” means that the student should actually acquire SKILLS in the process of education – he or she should be learning how to DO THINGS. Conceptual education involves learning how to solving puzzles. Each new one is a challenge. Each one must be learnt by the student – he/she must taste the thrill of solving the problem on their own. This can never be accomplished by lecturing. It can only be done by giving students problems that they solve on their own. Initially, it can be done in class, in a cooperative effort, where they help each other, and the teacher also helps. Later, problems can be assigned to do outside of class. For each problem, the student faces a risk: Maybe I will succeed, Maybe I will fail. Many fear to take the risk. It’s better NOT TO TRY. Then there is no risk of failure. If I had tried to understand, of course I would have understood it. But, it was not worthwhile.  Sour Grapes. This is why students strongly resist trying to do problems. Typically, if you give an assignment, you will find that one student does it and 20 others copy the same assignment. Strangely enough, the assignment which has been copied is often quite poor and wrong. I use a two part strategy when I give assignments, to try to ensure that each student solves his own, without copying from others. First I give motivational talks, explaining the benefits of trying to solve, and even of trying to solve and FAILING to be able to do so. Even this failure is better than copying. Second, I try to give each student unique assignments, by varying the problems assigned so that they are similar but not the same. It is only when students acquire skills required to solve realistic problems that they will be motivated to learn.

For both teachers and students, it is very important to understand the “Small Steps” principle. Everyone can learn anything if it is broken down into sufficiently small steps. Learning is difficult ONLY because the material being presented is not sequenced properly – we are trying to teach advanced concepts before we have covered the necessary background. When this is done, then memorization becomes the only option. If we start from where the student is, and take small steps which are possible for the students, everyone can reach the goal. Unfortunately, this ideal process is virtually impossible to follow in practice for many reasons. Students have different pace of learning, so small steps for some are giant steps for others. In addition, there is the demand of the course for coverage of a certain amount of content, and we cannot afford to take an entire semester filling in necessary background. Nonetheless, it is important to know this principle, to re-assure students who are used to failure. It is possible to improve performance if the students are motivated to learn, and are provided with resources to enable them to take the small steps on their own. Today, we have many resources available, such as Khan Academy, which teach small lessons on many concepts. Also having the brighter students in the class teach others outside of class is a very useful model.

In taking up the ideas discussed above, perhaps the most difficult part for the Teacher would be to convert the subject matter to USEFUL knowledge. Typically, the teacher has had courses which are purely theoretical. For example, in econometrics, students are taught how to prove the Gauss-Markoff theorem – in fact, this is something which has absolutely no relevance to applications. It has something to do with the construction of the engine, but it has nothing to do with driving the car. Similarly, nearly all subjects taught in social sciences, as well as mathematics and statistics, have heavy theoretical content, and very little practical content. So the teacher will have to invest time and effort to find out where the material being taught is used in real world applications. He or she will have to work out lessons which show the application of theories in real world context. When you try to do this, you will find that 90% of what is usually taught has NO application, and can safely be OMITTED from the curriculum. At the same time, there is a huge amount of relevant detail from the real world which is necessary to understand how to apply the theory; this extra material has to be organized and be brought into the classroom lessons. This requires a LOT of time and effort to FIND out where the material we are teaching is USED. It is a    CHALLENGE for each teacher: FIND at least ONE REAL WORLD APPLICATION of your material.  Typical textbooks provide FAKE real world applications – for example,  Varian discusses the market for rentals of housing by students to illustrate concepts of supply and demand. However, assumptions that all houses are identical, that there is a single equilibrium price, there is full information, no one can rent a house at higher than equilibrium, these are all completely wrong, and make it impossible to match the theoretical concepts to the real world context that the students experience. So we have to look for REAL real-world applications – places where the theory is ACTUALLY used by practitioners like real-estate agents in pricing and selling housing.

The first difficulty for the teacher is to learn how to relate theories to the real world; this will have to be done by the teacher on his own, since typical courses do not do this. The second task which is required of the teacher is to create UNDERSTANDING in additions to TECHNIQUE. We need to teach CONCEPTS instead of calculations. To give a simple example, consider the addition of fractions. We can teach the student the rule that, to get the sum, multiply the two denominators to get the denominator, and cross multiply and add numerators and denominators to get the numerator of the sum. The student can learn this rule and learn how to add fractions, but he may have no understanding of what a fraction is, and what this rule means.  To teach concepts, you have to start with small steps – take the simplest possible example. For example, consider adding 1/3 and ½.  Take a circular pie and cut it into three and two and then put the ½ part together with the 1/3 part and ask how we can add these parts. Note that if the pie was divided into 6 – the common denominator – then we would have no difficulty in adding the parts. By explaining using a concrete example which the student can visualize and relate to his personal experience, the student will be able to understand the concept of adding fractions. Note that even if a student understand the concept, he may not  have mastery of the technique, and may fail to be able to add complex fractions. Vice Versa, students who are experts in the technique may have no idea why it works and what it means. The two parts – the technique and the conceptual understanding – both have to be taught separately. OFTEN – the teacher will have to work to ACQUIRE the understanding himself, since it may not be available in textbooks.

The techniques which are taught correspond to the driving skills, but the understanding that lies beneath the surface corresponds to knowing where to go. It is necessary to learn both, and imparting this knowledge – both technical and the deep understanding – to students can create dramatic changes. Once they taste the thrill of knowing how to do something and ALSO understanding why to do it, and how it useful to achieve some real world goals, students will be inspired and motivated. One the light of the desire for learning is lit in the hearts of the students, there is no limit to what they can achieve. It is up to us teachers to nurture the seeds of potential in the hearts of all students, to enable them to grow into the amazing trees with branches reaching to the skies.

From: pp.2-5 of WEA Commentaries 8(1), February 2018

Download WEA commentaries Volume 8, Issue No. 1, February 2018 ›

3 responses

  • Tim Chapman says:

    Excellent points made.
    Too much of education is formalism and of little use to the majority of students. Education has moved away from developing the ability to solve real world problems. The position in the UK, considering reforms to 16-18 education, illustrate this mistake. Vocational education is consistently looked down upon in favour of abstract wrote learning.
    However, not all ‘western education’ is a slave to academic wrote learning. It’s possibly better to divide intentions of education into those seeing it as a simple gateway, those who see it as a way to improve the economy and those who see it as a way of developing human potential. This is possibly true across the globe.

  • James Beckman says:

    Since I teach business/tech at the Master’s level in Germany in English to students primarily from that country as well as Asia, I first encounter the matter of culture & language. While they all have undergraduate degrees in Engineering, I don’t go directly into math and flow charts. I need first to explain everything in human terms so that the course material makes sense & can presumably be useful to them as young managers in an international firm. They normally are very motivated as a result.

  • ishi says:

    That link to C K Raju is very interesting, partly because i come from what would be called the ‘colonizing world’ —ie european descent. He appears to know his math (but I am not an expert and so can’t really say) and has his own historical and analytical framework . (I know some people with Hindu backgrounds or influences who also see in Vedas and other ancient sources the roots of modern math and sciences.
    I didn’t know Indians had ‘taylor’s series’—though Ramanujan had many many series, related to reimann zeta function, pi, etc.).

    i like the idea of teaching math as an empirical or applied science—this ties up with some current speculations or discussions in computer science and math logic–eg the idea that we create not discover the world. You create an equation (using rules) and then look around top discover it in nature —though one can make the reverse argument (maybe Tegmark or Celine). What you create is basically something you saw or experienced.

    I have a hard time knowing what math or economics or science, etc. people should know (i sort of have my own approach or views, which overlaps 50% or so with mainstream ones).

    I didn’t like alot of my science/math courses because I didnt know why i was learning these things—but i didn’t know why i was learning the alphabet really either. ‘what is this for?’ One problem i see in current teaching is people teach people skills but without discussion of what they are going to use them for. Its like learning to shoot a gun without any discussion of what that skill is for. Also, whether there are other skills that may be more important to know.

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