Daniel Lemire's blog

, 19 min read

Two rules for teaching in the XXIst century

22 thoughts on “Two rules for teaching in the XXIst century”

  1. Daniel Bilar says:


    Thanks for for this valuable post. Most university teachers alas do not know how to teach effectively bc they have not been taught, and they do not leverage research results in pedagogy, cognition, learning, psychology, group dynamics, gender differences – this is a sad fact.

    For the interested pedagogue who would like to draw upon best practices (from designing the course backwards with end goals in mind, to syllabus, handling of problem students, assignment rationale etc) I recommend:

    1) McKeachie in his 11th edition (a classic) which focuses on techniques but has lots of references to empirical studies. http://www.amazon.com/McKeachies-Teaching-Tips-Strategies-University/dp/0618116494

    2) My favourite case study book is “What the best college teachers do” by Ken Bain: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/BAIBES.html – a longitudinal (15 years) exploration of exceptional college professors and what makes them ‘great’ (straight from the students’ mouth)

    If people are interested, I incorporated lessons drawns in a first semester programming course (cs 151 at Colby College in 2004-2006, sadly not online anymore) and a science of networks course (CS249b at Wellesley College in 2008 at cs.wellesley.edu/~cs249b )

    Have a great day

  2. Ben Babcock says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post. You will be happy to know that as a student in the faculty of education at Lakehead University, I am learning all the things you propose here. There is a big push in public education, at least in the Ontario curriculum, for differentiated instruction and “student-centred learning”, where the teacher facilitates student learning rather than merely attempting to transmit knowledge by lecturing and testing.

    You face a slightly different situation in university. The limitations you point out are real. Also, I would argue that class size is a huge limiting factor in university: how can professors possibly teach students effectively in classes of 100, 200, even 300? I suspect the answer is that they can’t and they actually aren’t supposed to—the system is designed to weed out or fail a percentage of the class.

    I think there is a separation in philosophy between K–12 education and post-secondary education. The former is public and, for the most part, mandatory: we want all students to be as successful as possible. The latter, on the other hand, can be private, and students choose to attend it for their own reasons. So some people will argue that because a student has chosen to be in university, it is up to that student to learn and pay attention, regardless of how the professor teaches. I think this is an absurd argument, but I see it pretty often.

    I suspect many professors, the same professors who grudgingly teach class only because it is a requirement of their employment and not because they enjoy educating young minds, see it this way. As the other Daniel points out in the first comment, the sharp line between university professors and K–12 teachers is that the former are not necessarily trained to teach. I am guessing this is an artifact of the way university evolved, with that “master–apprentice” relationship where a professor oversees a small group of intelligent, affluent students. That’s no longer the case, and if we are going to redesign post-secondary education, I think it’s worthwhile in looking at ways to redesign the process by which one goes from getting a doctorate to teaching a university class….

  3. Jerzy says:

    There’s a great community of high school teachers trying to figure out how to deal with these issues (open-ended assignments, role modeling, grading, deadlines, etc.) Their approaches sound great even for the university level.

    Two of my favorites are Dan Meyer: “I would so much rather my students understood the value of turning stupid ideas into reality than the entire sum of Algebra”

    …and Shawn Cornally: “Students need to learn to self-assess, and this is only done by talking thoughtfully with someone who has more experience”
    (his TEDx talk is definitely worth watching!)

  4. Paul says:

    As a somewhat recent student, I extend thanks to you and the commenters for making the effort to understand what does, and doesn’t, work in education. Especially in young grades a good teacher or a bad teacher can be the difference between a life long passion or aversion for the subject.

    One thing US schools got right, in my
    opinion, has been the relatively low time requirements. Under half the year in class, and then for ~7 hours. Learning in school moved at a glacial pace, but as a child I had plenty of time to explore my own interests.

  5. Charlie Warner says:

    Those that are interested in a “better way” might find the story of the Subbury School Interesting.


    Peter Gray has provided a series of 4 essays relating the ideas incorporated into the Sudbury Valley School Model to ancient (and more recent) hunter-gatherer learning regimes.


    (The above link is to the fourth in the series on the importance of play in education- all four are well worth reading).

    Peter Gray has some additional essays on the importance of play in the education of children on his blog. Good reading for those interested in the subject.

  6. Don Boys says:


    Although I am a long retired physics prof I still follow the educational practices. You comments here are about the best I have seen. Thanks for sharing them. I am passing them on to my colleagues.


  7. @Daniel

    Thanks. I don’t want students to have the right answers (that’s easy enough to achieve), I want them to build up an experience by encountering difficulties and finding ways around them.

  8. Daniel says:

    Very inspiring. Food for thoughts!
    I’ve been your student twice. I remember that you never answered my questions clearly. It’s been very frustrating at that time. But now I do understand. This attitude greatly helped me to develop my autonomy. (as you said in your article).

    Now we know the problem we are facing. So what is the resolution? Why no one has been able to write a good article about “HOW” we should learn creatively?

    Writing a recipe is against the principle to “break the rules”. But there is probably a way to develop our learning process and leaving all the possibilities opens. (I doubt that computers can help us on this).

    (Sorry for my English).
    Daniel, you are interesting as usual!

    Thank you.

  9. I think your suggestion to be an authentic role model is right on the mark. It led me to write about authenticity and another attribute that I find essential: teaching with authority. See http://tinyurl.com/89w726c

  10. Nicola says:

    Hi Daniel, We have created an open, non-profit calendar blog called One Change A Day which will feature 365 blog posts from around education and mooc worlds. This blog will also tell a story of how new ways of connecting with each other online are irreversibly changing education. It will also be published as a shared artifact of everyone’s experiences in print and digital calendar format at the end of the year.

    We would love to include your post – with your kind permission. The calendar blog is using the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License licence. Would this cause any conflicts with your current publishing permissions at 2.0?

  11. F. Carr says:


    We’re enjoying the outcomes, at least for our kids who are yet too young for college.

  12. Alain Desilets says:

    Really compelling talk on the same topic here:


  13. Nicola says:

    Thanks Daniel for your helpful reply and clarification. There was a reason we chose non-commercial but I can’t find it in our meeting notes so will ask colleagues and reply back. We do have a copy of the Creative Commons compatibility chart but are feeling our way along at the moment.

  14. @Alain

    Yes, this is a great talk.

  15. @Nicola

    Yes, it would violate my license because I want people to share my content using the same license I used. I specifically allow commercial use (so NC is a problem). I’d be interested in knowing why you want to prevent commercial uses.

    (To be clear, I allow people to use my content and *make money* from it. The condition is that they must allow other people to do the same. I think that’s fair.)

  16. @Nicola

    Of course, I could license this blog post to you guys directly using your license. Send me an email and I’ll reply with my agreement. I just want to be clear on what is meant by the CC license I use on this site.

  17. Paul Agapow says:

    Hear, hear. At a job interview some years ago, I was asked my opinion of undergraduate education. I said that most undergrads had been broken by school and that our primary problem was to unbreak them by teaching & assessing them in real ways, rather than more exams on rote-learnt bullet points.

    Didn’t get the job, although there were probably other objections to me …

  18. Hi Daniel,

    maybe you’ve noticed the following text by Seth Godin: http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/StopStealingDreamsSCREEN.pdf

    The two of you are quite like-minded.


  19. @Martin

    Great link. I am grateful.

  20. Don Boys says:


    Thanks for pointing me to Udacity. At 72 I am in CSC 101. Previous (8 years ago) an attempt to work through SICP by myself gave me enough experience to easily see the structure, but being a lousy typist doesn’t help with syntax. Still, I am really enjoying it. Also trying to teach my 5 year old niece Scratch, and she catches on rather quickly.


  21. @Don

    On the Internet, nobody knows you are 72.

  22. Krishnan says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Any system will be gamed, what is needed is a non-system where attributes like trying, tenacity and originality are valued more than just the “correct”answer