On teachers, daydreaming in class, and Robin Williams


King’s students talk about teachers. A lot. Who they like, who they don’t like, who’s hard, and who isn’t. The rest of the world is talking about teachers, too. A recent article in The New Yorker examined why their performance standards haven’t changed significantly over the past half century and why teachers haven’t tightened training methods--as opposed to athletes (by 2014, no basketball player hasn’t trained himself to dribble confidently on his non-dominant hand), chess players (who all memorize the shortlist of optimal opening strategies, with names like “Stonewall Attack”), and classical musicians (“pieces that were once considered too difficult for any but the very best musicians are now routinely played by conservatory students”).

What makes us want to listen to a teacher? Salman Khan (who founded the Khan Academy) argued in Time Magazine that no student is capable of paying attention for more than 18 minutes, no matter how charismatic the speaker or how interesting the subject matter. One professor, Diane M. Bunce, wanted to find out how many minutes of a lecture the average student could absorb. She studied three college-level chemistry courses. Lapses in attention usually last one minute or less, Bunce found. Students had short daydreams every five minutes at the beginning of a lecture. Ninety minutes later, the daydreams were two minutes apart. This means that students retain more information from the beginning of a lecture than from the end, In “that vacillating attention span…you can miss out on entire pharaonic dynasties,” NPR host, Neal Conan pointed out in a 2012 interview on micro-lectures.

My behavior is right on par with the average introductory-level chemistry student. Or it usually is. When I’m listening to certain teachers, I don’t even notice when the minute hand makes a half-circle, because I’m fascinated, and my face probably looks like I’m watching a triple-feature of Ted Talks (if they existed).

So what is it that makes a lecturer a good lecturer? This question is closely related to another question: what makes someone worth listening to? Worth because there’s a real cost: not letting your mind wander, not thinking about that thing that happened last night.

We might as well start by noting what doesn’t make a good lecturer. In 2010, the nonprofit organization Teach for America analyzed 20 years' worth of data, all the teacher stats and student scores since their inception, hoping to discover what got low-income, low-scoring students to listen and learn. They found that teacher experience wasn’t the answer. It startled me to read that master’s degree in education had no correlation to teacher success. It startled me even more to read that self-awareness—which seems like a reasonable explanation for Robin Williams’ mix of humor and warmth in Dead Poets Society—didn’t predict much. Teaching is “neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance,” wrote the “Chief Knowledge Officer” for Teach for America, Steven Farr, brushing aside another common assumption.

So the answer is…? Angela Lee Duckworth, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study in 2009 that backed Farr up on this. Here’s what Duckworth identified as the single most accurate predictor of teacher success: “Teachers who scored high in 'life satisfaction'—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues,” The Atlantic reported. (Another minor factor was grit, the same quality which enables a cadet to make it at West Point. Psychologists define “grit” as “perseverance and a passion for long-term goals.”)

Again, I was a little surprised. Can “life satisfaction” really be the highest predictive factor? Isn’t that kind of, well, unscientific? And aren’t there plenty of happy people who don’t belong behind a podium? Then, on the other hand, the idea rang true to me. Life satisfaction—or you could call it contentedness—does seem to function as a switchboard for other qualities, like insecurity (lower), focus (sharper), passion for life/learning/others (more of it). And if every college student is seeking, on some base level, that elusive state of being content, then they’ll find themselves magnetically drawn to the people who are.

Now I’ll pose a question to you. Obviously, teachers need to be proficient in the subject they’re teaching. Given this, do you think “life satisfaction” has anything to do with the stylistic differences in presentation style? Some of them, anyway?