Orange Pill

Seen on Twitter, via Slate Star Codex. Decided to try my hand at a more nuanced version. Limiting myself to 1000 words as a challenge, and to avoid spending too much time.

I’m skipping blue pill today as I haven’t done enough reading on it. Orange pill feels a bit more familiar (but not any more comfortable) so let’s go with that first.

Gives you the ability to instantly master any sport, job, activity, martial art, etc, that a human can do.

It’s the first day of a new academic term, and you are understandably nervous.

You are taking a new class of freshmen this year, and the principal had done his best to make you aware that this batch comes from a different demographic, one that came in with better entry cutoffs than two years ago, and that “we should all be ready for new challenges”.

You weren’t born for this, but you had just blown half your annual bonus on a miracle cure, a mastery pill found after many link-redirects. Your usual suspicions were lowered by your particularly bad evaluation that year. “This isn’t personal, but the policy is that every year we need to have a few personnel scoring bottom grade, and unfortunately this is the way the cards fall this year.” It was true; you had a few setbacks that year, distracted by garden-path personal matters best left unexplored. But the evaluation still took you by surprise.

So with a new pill, a visit to the lab, and heaven knows what they did to your brain, you have apparently been imbued with “10 best practices in teaching, gathered from over 5,000 teachers in 200 schools”. The details were in the pamphlet they gave you along with your new evaluation scores, which you subsequently lost in your carry-on even before you started reading a word of it.

No matter, that’s not going to diminish the efficacy of your newly-installed teaching methods, right?

You returned from what was arguably the best lesson of your entire teaching career, ever. And, very fortunately, witnessed by your subject head, whom you had the foresight to ask along. In the lounge, you begin to discuss your viewpoints, hoping to exchange more best practices. And you both get to check off the one-peer-evaluation-per-semester requirement even before the second week is over! *High-five*

“You should have recorded that lesson! You managed to do everything—outlining your lesson for structure, Socratic questioning to draw forth prior assumptions, giving students positive feedback, even using a simulation to show the P-V-T relationship. Everything was so well-managed, everyone was attentive all the time and doing something useful every second. I wish my lessons went that well.”

“So do I; this was a surprise really. I never expected things to go this well. I thought I’d just try some new things and see if they work out, and then try to improve it from there.” Best not to talk about the orange pill.

“Sorry, I know you’d like to work on this but I’ve got no feedback for you really. Everything just went so smoothly. Could I ask you to explain some things though?”

You nod and lean forward. Good communication skills and all.

“About 15 minutes into the lesson, after you gave them the first task and asked them to work on it quietly, there was a pair of students discussing the question animatedly. I thought that was a good thing, having discussion about the topic. Why did you shush them?”

“Firstly you can’t have them distracting other students. They may be really enthusiastic about the subject but we can’t have the rest of the class disrupted by that, right? In a Tripod survey done for NYC, it was demonstrated that teachers who are effective at classroom management monitor student behaviour, manage and redirect off-task behaviour, and foster classroom conditions that enable learning.”

That came from nowhere; you’ve never read about such teaching practices before. The orange pill’s work. And those two students never gave you any trouble from then on. They never asked you any questions or spoke up in class, either.

“I guess that makes good sense. I don’t really like it when students start their own conversations, but I figured as long as they are doing my work and discussing my subject, it can’t be a bad thing, right? But I totally see your point, never thought of it that way. You should share that survey with the rest of the department, I think the department heads would really like it. It’s good material for professional development sharing, you know?

“What about that girl in the back, who was using her phone while you were explaining acceleration? I know you couldn’t see from there but I saw her googling some terms: kinematics, velocity, and so on. She didn’t seem to be familiar with those terms; maybe she wasn’t paying attention in the lecture? Or maybe English is not her native language. What do you think?”

“Same thing, the first lesson is important for setting precedents. Can’t have them already being distracted by their smartphones in the first lesson, right? If they have any questions they should ask. Haphazard lessons do not facilitate learning.”

Is that what it’s like to be a masterful teacher? To have an answer to everything. It makes you feel competent and secure. Two more lessons and you’ll be collecting their first topical quizzes, then you’ll get to see the fruits of your work. That girl didn’t do well for the quiz. Or for any of the subsequent quizzes. She eventually downgraded that subject, did poorly for it in the finals, got into the university and programme of her choice anyway, and is now working at a startup making educational tools. Ironic, but no harm was done. Right?

“Well, I’ve got nothing else. I’m glad to see you’ve bounced back. We were all so worried for you after last year’s evaluations. I guess it gets to us all every so often, but we just have to find our footing again, right?”

“Yeah, thanks for asking. I’m much better now. See you all at lunch in a bit.”

You’ve found your footing definitely; this feels good, and you could see yourself doing this for the rest of the year. Might even think about taking up some of the academic and research programmes that the school is always organising to help students catch up. The doubts and questions quickly clear up in your head. All but one. You ended the lesson five minutes early, just in time for student feedback and evaluation on the lesson—another best practice. As they were handing in the completed survey cards, a cheeky student smilingly asked, “Why do you choose to teach?”

Taken aback, it was a few seconds (thinking time, you remind yourself) before you smiled in return, and said “if you behave, maybe I’ll tell you someday”.

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