Optimism in the Classroom

575x270-panoramic_optimism_future_16181One of the topics we discuss in my Counseling Skills class is the importance of optimism and how it’s used in developing a therapeutic relationship. In counseling, we recognize the importance of how a person thinks is directly related to how they act.  Now we know that before any real change takes place in counseling, the person needs to be willing to change. In applying this concept to teaching, it brings to mind some possibilities of how to teach with optimism.  The word itself, optimism, comes from the Latin word “optimum” which translates to “best.” The Greek origin of the word optimism comes from the word “optim”, which translates to “power.”  Bringing the “best power” in the classroom.

Some of the things we know about the effects of optimism are the following:

Optimistic people are more physically healthy. They get sick less, have stronger immune systems and are more likely to achieve because they don’t give up too easily. Also, they tend to have a higher state of emotional health and have better-coping skills in dealing with life’s setbacks.  So how do we apply the notion of optimism in the classroom?

We are all aware of the importance of getting students involved in the classroom. Sitting in the classroom and being a passive observer, a non-participant, not only takes the power away from the student but as an instructor, it takes my energy away as well.  Lecturing to a room full of students who show about as much enthusiasm as an eraser is not very empowering to me, so I decided a long time ago that part of teaching is promoting energy in the learning process. The way of doing this is not only involving students in their own learning but getting them to feel more optimistic about their ability to learn.  ‘If I feel I am capable of learning, I will learn.”  As in counseling, empowering our students should be the foundation by which everything else is built on.  Learning should be a process that not only makes us feel more confident in ourselves but promotes a better understanding and mutual respect for other learners.

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Some of you may be asking, “Can optimism really be taught in the classroom?”  I believe it can. Keep in mind one of the real differences in an optimistic person and a pessimistic person is how they view failure. Pessimists see failure as being personal and permanent, whereas an optimist sees failure as temporary, non-personal and specific.  All students experience early in their learning a sense of failure. It may be answering a question wrong, writing a paper that didn’t quite meet the expectations of the instructor, or perhaps due to a learning disability, every lesson becomes a bit of a struggle to complete. A student should never see a single failure as a permanent indication of their ability to learn.  As in counseling, reframing a student’s perception of a failed learning event can be a reinforcing moment, providing some kind of understanding that the answers will come.

Another interesting fact is that using humor in the classroom actually can promote higher levels of activity in the brain.  Brain scans have measured considerable high-level activity when humor is used in listening and learning. Also, memory seems to get a boost when learning and humor are combined.  Perhaps a simple technique can be to just bringing a smile to the class.  Making students feel more comfortable can make a considerable impact on a student’s willingness to learn. We all had teachers we can remember that we didn’t particularly like because they were so dry and boring. Most likely they had a dry effect and delivered their lecture without any emotion or enthusiasm, and probably never smiled. It wasn’t the material being taught that was problematic but having to spend an hour or more in a classroom where the flat affect of the instructor’s delivery made learning uneventful and sometimes painful. Someone once said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.”

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Bringing optimism in the classroom benefits not only students but the instructors as well.  In creating a supportive learning environment, we support students in developing not only stronger cognitive skills, but we also meet the emotional needs as well.  We should be including in our lectures, stories of optimism that have made a difference in the human condition. This in itself can change a student’s perception of themselves and their own ability in promoting change in their world.

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.  Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
Helen Keller

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Question Everything… I Dare You

question-everything (1)Until several decades ago, most teachers thought that teaching simply involved filling a student’s head with information. Knowledge was ‘transmitted’ from an authority (the teacher) to a learner (despite the fact that the ineffectiveness of lecture-based teaching has been known for quite some time), generally by lecture. This thinking and practice are firmly entrenched in most classrooms despite the fact that the ineffectiveness of lecture only teaching can be very ineffective.                                                                                      Modern cognitive psychology tells us that learning is a constructive, not receptive, process. This theory of learning (constructivism) holds that understanding comes through experiences and interaction with the environment and that the learner uses a foundation of previous knowledge to construct new understanding. Consequently, the learner has primary responsibility for constructing knowledge and understanding, not the teacher. In a constructivist classroom, the teacher is no longer the “authority” but instead is a guide or facilitator who assists students in learning in spite of the fact that the ineffectiveness of lecture-based teaching has been known for quite some time.

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The following was an email I received from a student this week which made me think about the notion of learning.

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Professor Buffo,

“I wanted to ask this question because it is very important to me. What I want to know from you is “what is the ‘one’ thing you really want students to learn from you?” I do mean this seriously. What is the most significant thing you wish or want for me to learn from you? I’m getting overly curious.”                                                                                                       Thanks for taking the time,

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I found this to be an interesting and valid question. What do we want our students to learn and if there is one significant thing you want your students to leave your class with, what is it?                                                                                                                                         This was my response:

Dear _______, your question is well taken and much appreciated. It implies that you may have some questions regarding the final destination of class. Questions are good and voicing them even better.

First of all, let me say that learning is a process, not a product. The experience of gaining knowledge or a skill really becomes a subjective experience. In other words, how I learn can be very different than how you learn.  That’s not to say I learn better or you learn better, just different. So one of the things I really would like you to learn is just that, we are both sharing the same journey, but my experience it in very different ways.  My role is to provide you the information you may require depending where your journey may take you. It’s like me inviting you to a buffet table and telling you to help yourself, get what you want, take what you need, it may come in handy in reaching your destination.                                     So what do I want students to learn from me?

  • To keep asking questions
  • Be curious
  • Be mindful
  • Remain divergent in your thinking
  • Never be afraid to challenge someone else’s thinking
  • And always be open to change, for I believe change is the end result of all learning.

Thank you for your question and the opportunity to respond.                                             Regards,

Professor Buffo

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