Guide on the Side or Sage on the Stage

7e908088f13147bb5ddfba64838c62b4When I was a practicing therapist, I would often get asked “what’s your theoretical orientation?” I always felt awkward answering that question since I feel one approach could never apply to everyone.  Now as an educator, I’m sometimes asked about my philosophy on education. Are you more teacher-centered or student-centered?  Do I favor more being the “guide on the side” or “sage on the stage?” I guess it depends. I learned to do both, use what I need based on the needs of the class.  I teach eclectically, I never did like prescribing to a particular group, be it political, religious, or anything too trendy,(OK, I own an I Phone).

Eclectic, as the name implies is an approach that incorporates a variety of principles and philosophies in order to create a program to meet the needs of our students. Instead of insisting a strict adherence to one particular approach of school of thought, being electric allows us to employ elements from a range of techniques with the goal of establishing a course that is personally tailored to the needs of the class.  The primary benefit is not only allowing the classroom experience to become more personalized, but it encourages the instructor to be more creative is class design and delivery.

At one time, most therapists rigidly adhered to a single style, but eclectic therapy today is the most common style used by practicing therapists.  It is a more flexible approach that allows the therapist to adapt to each client’s individual needs. Perhaps I adopted my personal teaching style from my experiences being a therapist, but there seems to be a common tie to this approach.

What is best for the student? And how to we as educators not only identify what is best for our students, but how do we approach those needs in our instruction? It is so much easier to teach every class the same and put the responsibility on the student to adjust to the needs of the instructor, but I found in my 27 years practicing as a therapist, this approach will surely guarantee a lack of investment in outcomes in the learning process.

I’ve known many therapists who were reluctant to call themselves “eclectic” in fear of sounding too wishy-washy or being insufficiently focused. In the early stages of my training, I was told by my supervisor, “Never say you are electric, for you will lose credibility with your peers.”  The truth is that most therapists practiced electric therapy, but never admitted it.

So perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is not what our teaching style is, but rather, how do we adapt our teaching to our students? Every class is different. No matter how many PSY 101 classes I have taught, they are never the same. The subject material remains the same, but the students will always be different and so should our approach to how we deliver that subject matter. Perhaps like in therapy, unless we our willing to constantly re-create our teaching and thinking, we set ourselves up for boredom and even burnout.


Grading grades

  • gradingThere is an old Zen story of a perspective student who approaches a Zen master and asks the question; “How long would it take for me to reach enlightenment?” The master looks up and answers, “Ten years”. But master what if I studied real hard? The master looks up again and responds, “20 years”. The student surprised, asked again: “what if I worked very, very, hard and became your most dedicated student?” Again the master looks up and says, “In that case, 30 years”.  The perspective student seemed very confused at this point, “I don’t understand, the harder I work, the longer it will take for me to reach enlightenment? Again the master looks up and says; “As long as you have one eye on how close you are in achieving your goal that leaves only one eye for your task.”

I always think of this story when students seem more concerned about the grade they’re receiving rather than what they’re learning.  From early on in our education, grading becomes the focus of learning. I remember back in the 1980’s and 1990’s studies were conducted to determine what affects grading had on students and education.  The results were not only interesting, but troubling as well. Students ‘placed more interest on grades rather than what they were learning.  Also, grades may directly influence the degree of a students’ thinking.  Students may study only what they think they need to know to get a passing grade. Even more interesting, one particular study had two groups of students; one was told they would be graded on how well they learned a lesson in social science and another group of students who were told that no grades would be given, but asked to review the same social studies lesson. The results showed that those students that were told that they would be graded showed less understanding of the lesson with less recall ability. The students that were not being graded had far better understanding of the lesson with much improved recall than the graded group.

OK, I get it, we need some way of assessing our students and grades may never go away, but perhaps we as educators need to put more focus on what is the real intrinsic motivator of learning. What makes a student want to learn more? How do we as educators promote and encourage learning without the need to misplace the focus with a ranking letter grade which is supposed to indicate the degree of the students learning.  Jean Piaget described the importance of facilitating learning rather than direct learning, the importance of ongoing assessment and turning the classroom into a setting of exploration and discovery.  Perhaps it’s time to challenge our thinking about how we assess our students, but for now, Saturday mornings will be spent drinking strong coffee, as I grade my student’s assignments.

Reflections on the 9x9x25 Challenge


20071230reflection1The last nine weeks have been interesting participating in the 9x9x25 Challenge.  I, like most of my colleagues who have participated in this writing, share the feeling of regret that it has come to an end, but also feelings of relief that there is one less thing I have to do in the upcoming week.  The joy of writing is something I felt years ago when I was an avid journal writer. Every day I would write in my leather bound book thoughts, feelings, joys, disappointments, and dreams. It was easy then because no one but me would be reading it, but now through the magic of technology, everyone has access to my words.  I’m not a writer. I struggle at times translating my thoughts to paper.  My wife who is a published author can whip out 8 to 10 pages, no sweat. I on the other hand will spend 10 minutes writing out a Thank You card. So this writing challenge these past 9 weeks has been rewarding because I rediscovered the joy of writing. 


Writing these weekly submissions for my blog allowed me to not only focus on myself as an instructor, but perhaps more importantly, focus on myself as a learner.  I’m always amazed how we teach is how we learn.  I think the 9x9x25 Challenge can be a critical component in helping probationary instructors as well as seasoned instructors share, learn and invent or even re-invent themselves. We sometimes spend too much time discussing what’s not working in the classroom. Providing a space to openly share those magical moments we have in the classroom becomes a reminder to all of us why we do what we do. I always knew that I was lucky to work with so many wonderful instructors, but to be able to openly learn from such a talented faculty has made me humble, for these talented individuals are also my friends.  

So, I thank all who shared your wisdom, joy, concerns, and ideas making us all better teachers and better students.  You all inspire me to be better, to try things out of the ordinary, to take risks, and to believe what we do is so important. Also, my students thank you, for with every post I read, I take a little of you into my classroom and my students benefit from it as well.  

Thank you to Charlie for bringing Yoga consciousness into the classroom, and Jason and Erin for their eloquent and witty writing skills, (I’m jealous), and Karly for reminding us the importance of trusting the process of learning as well as trusting ourselves, and Curtis for reminding us of the frustrations of our technology yet keeping our sense of humor, and Mark for writing about the need for more effective seating in classrooms, and everyone else I didn’t mention for sharing your experience and wisdom. Especially a big Thank You to Todd who had the vision of the 9x9x25 Challenge and like a Zen master, recognized the simple act of writing could awaken so many of us. 

Samurai warrior

Is this the last of my weekly posts?  I think not.


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 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.

rose glasses

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, where as 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 completed. 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 affect 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.”

optimism (1)

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

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.


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


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,                                                                                        (student’s name)

*************************************************************************************************  133919-neo_matrix

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 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 may experience it in very different ways.  My role is to provide you 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,                                                                                                                               Sal Buffo


What Would Captain Kirk Do?


My first experience teaching an ITV (Interactive Television) class was terrifying. The idea that there was a group of students in another class, in another campus, in another town, relying on me to press all the right buttons, adjust the microphones, adjust the cameras, and, I almost forgot, teach a class. This was surely unfamiliar territory for me. Just days before my first ITV class, I had a very quick in-service about what does what, but that first day of class, you become that Captain Kirk at the podium, plotting your course, making sure everything is turned on;

Boldly Going Where No Teacher (at least this one) Has Ever Gone Before.

As the screens light up and the images of students on the Prescott campus appeared, I thought, I got this, what’s the big deal. The clock struck 3:30pm and it was show time.  I began talking and I could hear the students on the Prescott campus stating they couldn’t hear me well. I fumbled with the volume controls for a few minutes until I realized I forgot to turn on my mike. Since I joked about feeling like Captain Kirk before class started with students, a voice echoed from the back of the classroom, “that’s Ok, Captain Kirk was only human too.” Compassion in the classroom, you got to love it.


Back on course, the rest of the class seemed to go without any more incidences, but I was beginning to realize a big challenge teaching an ITV class, the lack of mobility. I like to walk around the classroom unless I’m using the whiteboard during class. During class discussions, I walk around, getting closer to the discussions floating around the classroom. Students don’t seem to mind and for me it’s became part of how I delivery a lesson.  In an ITV class, this becomes impossible.  You must remain in the camera view.  I found I needed to adjust how I delivered a lesson staying in one spot. Another adjustment I had to make was, I couldn’t clearly see the faces of the students in the remote classroom. I mean, to really see their faces. I began to realize how important that was. To see students’ reactions, body language, all those cues we get in the classroom that tells us if they’re bored or really listening and understanding the material.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, but even with all the advantages it provides us in making our lives easier, it does present challenges.  One of the biggest challenges has been getting to spend face to face time with my students. This is why I decided that with my ITV class that meets twice a week, I spend one class meeting on the Verde Campus and the other class meeting on the Prescott Campus. This has made not only a tremendous difference in my interaction with students, but students appreciate the opportunity to have that face to face with their instructor.

I believe that challenges make us better at what we do. The more adjustments we find in adapting to something new, usually we gain a better perspective in what we are trying to accomplish. I think the challenges I faced in teaching in an interactive video classroom has made me more confident as an instructor and continues to challenge me in developing more effective ways of delivering a lesson in an ITV environment.

So stayed tune for the continuing voyages of the SSBuffo traveling through space, virtual space that is. 3131004-5453052638-67712

Oh, I almost forgot…live long and prosper…


My Brain Is Full

A student walks into the classroom and seems somewhat distraught. She quietly sits at her desk waiting for class to begin. I look up and greet her and ask her how she is doing; “I’m doing OK, but sometimes I feel my brain is so full of stuff, it’s getting hard to remember everything.”  This reminded me of a Far Side comic by Gary Larson of a student coming to class who has an exceptionally small head asking his instructor to be excused since his small brain reached its limit and was “full.”


Our brains consist of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or an ISB drive flash drive.  Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

But the way we use ours brains today is much different compared to how we used our brains 100 years ago.  The digital informational age we live in today has radically changed how we think, retain information and communicate with each other. The interlinking of humanity began with the emergence of language and now has progressed to the point where information can be transmitted to anyone, anywhere, and at the speed of light.  We hear more and more about the global network, linking the billions of minds together in a single system. It’s beginning to sound more like our planet (Gaia) developing her own nervous system.  The parallels between this global brain and the evolution of our own brain hold many similarities.

global brain

The WWW, has become the repository for all human knowledge. Data is not located in any single place, but is distributed among tens of millions of host computers across the planet.  There are many similarities in how the WWW and our brains function.  A link on the hundreds of billions of pages on the web will call up some or associated page , just as human recall may take the form of a thought, a visual image, a sound, or some other modality, a link on the web may call up a text, images, sounds, video, or some combination of them.

So what does this have to do with a student who claims their brain is too full to learn anything else?  Well, it not about not having enough memory to remember things, but it may actually be the inability at times to process excessive amounts of information presented in this technological world due to lack of learning how to use more effective memory skills.  Early studies showed that people could remember a lot, but it was assumed that we did it by remembering abstract descriptions without too many details, but given the right setting, the human brain can record an amazing amount of information.  Remembering details becomes more effective when conscious reminders are given. Telling a student to actively try to remember details and giving them familiar examples which draws upon their previous memory or understanding reinforces memory and promotes more learning. Like the computer which relies on semblances of information, so does our brain.  To prove this in the classroom, I give students a simple memory exercise. I display 20 random objects on the projected screen and give students 1 minute to memorize all 20 objects displayed.  Most students remember about half of the objects shown and seem disappointed in the results. I then instruct the students to make up a story for the next different 20 objects shown on the screen and see if their memory improves. Most students are able to remember the 20 objects with 80% to 90 % accuracy. It’s the ability to draw from our own experience and associations that our memory relies on.

emotions01Yes, technology has changed the way we live, communicate, and learn, but equally important, technology has changed the way we think. The notion of how we develop more effective learning skills and how we can expand our memory may be in our in our understanding of how technology is creating what some refer to as “The Global Brain.”

Just where this digital revolution will take us is up for discussion. Let’s remember that just 15 years ago when the WWW was just starting, no one realized the impact it would have on human society. Yet today we are able to see the changes it has already made in our world. As we encourage our students to learn and think for themselves, synthesize information and form new associations, let’s not forget this is what technology should support and we as educators should apply this technology knowing it will affect not only our students, but teaching as a whole