154. Learning how to teach better – II

Learning how to teach better – II:
Igniting Curiosity in Learners

Igniting Curiosity

As I scrolled through my Facebook wall, a status posted by an MBA student caught my eyes. He wrote, “The main role of a teacher should be to ignite the curiosity. This will drive students to be in a receptive mode. The learning process becomes joyful and intense.”

Since I firmly believe that teachers and students both should feel equally accountable for learning, I replied to his status, “And, the main role of a student should be to come prepared with an open mind and ready to be ignited with curiosity. The teaching process becomes joyful and intense.”

Curious about how learning happens, we are forever tangled in a big puzzle: who should motivate whom. The teacher? Or, the student himself or herself? Or the parents? About this confusion, a colleague of mine usually quips, “I can’t be Tony Robbins. My job is to teach, not to motivate.”

“You cannot motivate other people,” writes Bob Pike, in his book Creative Training Techniques Handbook. Perplexing it may sound, upon reflection, the statement does make sense. We can’t wake up someone pretending to be sleeping. Similarly, we can’t motivate someone who doesn’t want to be. Pike also adds, “People do things for their own reasons, not yours.” Teachers may have reasons to teach, but learners may not have reasons to learn. Sounds rather depressing. But as teachers or trainers or mentors, we keep doing what we have chosen to do. We keep putting in our efforts. Hoping somehow we’ll be able to inspire the learners to be curious and motivated.

Can we untangle this puzzle? Let’s believe we can. But first, let me share you a bitter experience I had as a student.

I had always been a loudmouth back in my school days. And when I didn’t see the point of learning the geometric shapes, I had the nerve of asking my math teacher, “What’s the point of studying Geometry?” Back then, math teachers had a certain reputation. They were to be revered. And feared. Thus, as soon as I blurted out my question, I got a reply in the form of his murderous slap on my cheek. I didn’t dare ask anymore.

He could have said, “Geometry helps us understand the importance of balance.” He could have, he should have. But he didn’t. I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems because my teacher failed to paint the big picture for us. He never cared enough to stir our curiosity.

And that’s what we – a lot of teachers, even the ones with good intentions, do again and again. By focusing too much on the details, we unconsciously neglect the part where we should be enabling students to visualize a bigger picture and connect it to the reality.

“If teachers can make us feel like we are learning a fascinating topic that will have a direct impact on our thinking and/or on our lives,” another student posted a comment on my FB status, “We have the natural instinct to become curious about that topic.” And, that could be the missing piece of the puzzle: enabling learners to realize the significance of the topic and to help them make real life connection.

In his book ‘Brain Rules’, molecular biologist John Medina writes that human brain processes meaning before details; the gist before the core concept; the bigger picture before the components. To put this in a very Marketing language, to grab the consumer’s curiosity, sell the benefit before selling the features.

The insight is: Start with the bigger picture and then logically explain the details. Present a real world example, connect it to the concept, tie the loose ends with details, and finally help the learners imagine endless possibilities. Or, share stories, make a point, lead that into the theory, ask students to reflect, and then help them implement the learnings in real situations.

Let me wrap this up. You may be a teacher trying to inspire students. Or a mentor trying to help a young entrepreneur. A trainer trying to transform an organization. Take the inductive approach. If we want to ignite curiosity in learners, paint the bigger picture in their minds, and then explain the meaning of the concepts, instead of bulldozing them with seemingly disparate data, details, and definitions. When we help them internalize and personalize the purpose, then perhaps, just like the MBA student said, the learning process becomes joyful and intense.

(Also published on The Kathmandu Post, Escalate. May 1, 2017)


153. Learning how to teach better – Part I

Back in my school days, we had a classmate who would rather give up his life than share class-notes with us. He would act as if we were plotting to snatch his beloved “First Boy” title. Like the hideous Gollum of Lord of the Rings, he would fight hard to hide the notes – his precious – away from us and other students.

Years later, when I joined university, I was astonished to meet once again a few of such Gollums. Like my sneaky school friend, they would conceal their precious notebooks from us – their competitors.

But luckily, we had a friend who would, without any hesitation and suspicion, share everything he had: books, notes, research articles. And we would share ours too. He would also ask us to come over his house for group study sessions. I still remember those sessions where four or five of us would teach each other, question each other, and listen to different explanations.

For me, those sharing sessions resulted in deeper grip of the concepts that we were trying to master, and helped us become better thinkers, analyzers, and creators of our own interpretations. We would discuss, argue, and often indulge in intense verbal battle – and each time, we would develop newer perspective and better insights. Bottom line: we taught each other and made each other better.

And this brings to my first point. As Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed, learning happens best through social interaction. The more we share, the more we learn. Yes, we all learn in our own peculiar ways, but we learn best by interacting with each other in different social contexts.


Now, imagine your teacher was to teach the concept of research. One way is your teacher starts the class with the definition of research. Explains the concept part by part. Gives some examples. Ends the class by going over the process of conducting research. This is what usually happens.

Another way is your teacher tells the students to visit 10 different companies, find out the number of employees in each, find out the salary range for males and females, and prepare a report – all these without giving you specific instruction. Asks you to write a reflection on what you did, share your findings, and finally the teacher connects everything to the concept of conducting a research.

I bet the second way will be far more effective because as a student, you would be engaged in constructing knowledge with your own hands. You would certainly learn and remember better from the experience than from memorizing the definitions written by the teacher on the board.

And, that’s my second point: learning happens when we actively participate in the learning process, when we take part in co-creating the knowledge by diving into real (or realistic) situations.


Once I was invited for a guest-lecture session in a reputed business college in Kathmandu. When I arrived at the college’s reception, the lady behind the desk looked indifferent, then confused. She asked me ten different questions about me and what I was doing there. I tried to explain her: “Look miss, this person from your college had called me yesterday for the session. So here I am.”

She snapped, for some reason. “What is wrong with this coordinator?” She exhaled anger. I stepped back. Literally. In a millisecond, her face turned evil red, and eyes looked possessed. “This coordinator never informs me and he shouts at me for not doing work properly. I am so fed up working in this office.”

And, all that time, I was thinking, “Dear lady, I don’t need to hear these internal stuff. I am an outsider. You don’t have to vent out on me.”

I was expecting a warm welcome and a cup of coffee. Instead, I witnessed a disgruntled employee losing her cool and risking the organization’s hard-earned goodwill.

Later when I thought about the incident, the theories of Organizational Behavior and Psychology started bouncing back in my head. I knew the theories, explanation, and examples from the books. But they made real sense only after I reflected on the incident unfolding in front of my eyes.

John Dewey, a pioneer in progressive education, had once said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And that’s my third point: learning happens when we experience an event and consciously think back to analyze and make a meaning out of it.


Connecting all three scenarios, let me tell you what I believe about teaching and learning, and what we, as teachers, can do make it better.

When we help students explore, find, and draw multiple perspectives through classroom discussions, activities, enquiry, they learn better. When we understand this concept, we can design learning situations that allow students to ‘learn by doing’ and we help them experience and reflect to construct new knowledge.

Let’s reflect. Are we simply teaching the content? Or are we creating helpful environment which allows students to interact? Are we merely giving them assignments? Or are we allowing them to work together, learn together? Are we constantly dumping knowledge on them? Or are we giving them opportunities to reflect on their learning?

Dear teachers, let’s reflect.


A slightly modified version of this article was published on national daily The Kathmandu Post on April 17, 2017.

Becoming better mentors

152. 17 Things Teachers Can Do This 2017

17 Things Teachers Can Do

Dear passionate teacher,

“You become the teacher you hated in the school.” This is a famous saying in education. I’ve been teaching for almost a decade now and I have to confess, I was slowly turning into the teachers I despised in my school days.  Only after I joined the M.Ed. program in 2012, I realized how bad of a teacher I was. And since then, I have been trying to improve my attitude, skills, and knowledge about how learning happens and how teachers can help students learn better in a meaningful way. Now, I am also passionate about helping other teachers to become better at what they do.

So dear teacher, here is a list of 17 small changes you can bring into the classroom this 2017, and hopefully create awesome learning experiences for your students, and for yourself.

  1. Understand how learning happens:

As teachers, we must understand at least these three insights from the field of Mind, Brain, and Science:

  • learning happens best through social interaction;
  • learning happens when students actively participate in the learning process; and
  • learning happens when students experience an event (directly or indirectly) and then reflect on it.

So the question for us is: are we simply teaching them or are we creating facilitative environment which allows them to interact, work actively, learn, and reflect on their learning.

  1. Give them a big picture:

“Why do we study Geometry, sir?”. I had once asked my math teacher. I got the reply in the form of his slap on my cheeks. He could have instead said to me, “When we understand shapes, we understand the importance of balance.” I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems and calculations because my teacher never painted the big picture for us.

Don’t make that mistake. Give the students meaning before details. Leadership guru Simon Sinek tells us to start with ‘why’. Help the students see the ‘why’ – the big picture and the subjective value of the course. Tell them how challenging the course is and tell them ways to overcome the challenges.

  1. Help them connect the dots:

And then, help them connect their learning to the real world. Help them understand, remember, analyze, synthesize and develop solutions to real life problems. Push them to explore and persevere. Guide them to come up with new ideas. Let them dream. And, support them to nurture their dreams.

  1. Start strong, end stronger:

Be mindful of the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the class. Students usually remember the first moments best, and the final moments next best. This phenomenon is called the Primacy-Recency effect. Don’t have a clumsy opening. Rather, start your class with something that’s unexpected (story, joke, strange facts, drama) but not with something boring and usual. Similarly, end the class with an activity that’s memorable. Don’t say, “Well, that’s the bell. Time’s up. See you in the next class.” Doing that is a lost opportunity.

  1. Let them teach each other:

I believe that peer teaching can be far effective than lectures in so many cases. As the popular saying goes: when you teach, you learn better. Ask students to teach each other in pairs and in groups, usually for revision works. Besides, this is one of the best facilitation techniques. We all need some relief here and there.

  1. Let them review each other:

Give them a rubric and ask them to grade each other’s works. Teach them the art of giving constructive feedback and then have them critic each other. There are tons of research that confirm peer-feedback as an effective learning technique. Also, this gives students a great opportunity to learn the essential art of building and maintaining relationships.

  1. Tell stories:

We may not remember facts and information. But we remember experience. Story is the best weapon to provide unforgettable experience (vicariously) to the students. There’s a myth: stories are just for the literature classes. Well, not true at all. Even if you are teaching math or physics or finance, you can always wrap your content inside the stories and deliver your lesson. Try it. Human brains simply love stories, and every teacher must be a storyteller.

  1. Reduce lecture time:

Decrease teacher talk time. And instead, increase student talk time. When the teacher speaks, the students have nothing else to do but to listen (assuming the students can stay focused). Unfortunately, listening is the least effective way of learning and retaining knowledge. Also, the one who talks gets more practice time, which means, the teacher is getting to practice explaining the information. If your dominant method is lectures, you are not giving students enough opportunities to analyze, interpret, and create their own knowledge.

  1. Mix up different methodologies:

So, how to reduce lecture time? Simple. By mixing different teaching methodologies. Try this mantra: an effective learning happens in a teacher-led-students-centered class. Get them involved in activities. Pair works, group activities, problem solving exercises, student presentations, stories, debate, quiz, panel discussion, interview, and many many more. Important tip: don’t do the activities for the sake of doing them. Always finish off an activity with a reflection. Make them write and share reflections.

  1. Revisit 3X3W:

Retention is a big issue in teaching/learning. How do we make sure that students understand and remember what we teach? One of the ways is to implement variations to teach a single concept (especially the difficult ones). Here’s my rule of thumb: teach a concept at least 3 times in 3 different ways. Suppose you are teaching the concept of photosynthesis. Tell a story about how plants work throughout the day to produce oxygen for the living beings. Show them a process diagram and have them practice drawing the diagram. Then show them a video of how photosynthesis happens. Well, you get the idea behind it. Unlike drilling, this sort of repetition is helpful because students will have a chance to encode at least three versions of the same information in their brains.

  1. Emphasize on Reflective Writing:

As mentioned earlier, learning happens when students experience an event and then reflect on it. Simply experiencing an event (listening to a story, doing a pair-work) is not enough. The students must reflect on the experience and make a meaning out of it. For this, reflective writing is an amazing tool. Before the class ends, ask students to calm down and reflect on the day’s learnings and write freely for about 5 minutes. What do they remember and how will they use the knowledge in their lives? How did they feel? Why did they feel the way they felt? And so on. This short closing activity will help students cement the experience and meaning in their long term memory, and they can easily retrieve the insights when they need them.

  1. Make students draft their classroom constitution:

Why not let them write their own classroom constitution? They will feel the ownership and teachers won’t have to enforce rules in an autocratic way. Also, students will feel that they have autonomy over their learning process/environment. It’s best to do this on the first day of the class. Divide the class into several groups and tell them to come up with a certain number of rules. Then, each group leader will present their versions of the constitution and through voting, they finalize the draft.

  1. Modify classroom setup:

We like changes. We love novelty. In life and in classrooms. And when students spend their entire semester or a session in the same classroom, they surely would love to see some changes. Studying in the same set up day in and day out for months is not motivating (and is not fun at all). Change the seating arrangement. Change the layout of the benches/desks. Change the posters and wallpapers. Better yet, assign a group of students as Change Police Officers every month. They’ll have to implement new ideas for change in the classroom.

  1. Go beyond the four walls:

John Dewey had said, “Community is the curriculum” and I interpret this as a call out to all the teachers to take their teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom. A lot of teaching and learning happening inside the classroom, sadly, do not reflect the realities of the communities and the society at large. We’re still teaching subjects in isolation however learning becomes meaningful when students get opportunities to integrate their subject-skills (say – language, calculation, social studies) and apply the skills to solve the problems of a community (say – write a narrative of people on how they are earning through poultry business). When students get to interact with real issues, their learning becomes real learning.

  1. Manage the Affect in the classroom:

One of my inspirations, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa writes about how teachers should take control of the affect in the classroom. Affect (a subjectively experienced emotion) directly influences attention and learning. What she means is that we should take charge of the ‘feeling’ in the classroom. Walk with positivity into the classroom and you can help students feel better, learn better, and retain better every single time. (See: Pygmalion Effect). Also, let the students know that they can count on you if they are facing any problems.

  1. Take risk:

If we only do what we can do, we will never be more than what we are right now. Great quote, right? Therefore, challenge yourself. Many teachers (especially the ones who have taught for many years) I know are reluctant about, for instance, class observation. They might have valid reasons for such reluctance. Nevertheless, request your colleague to observe your class and listen to their suggestion. Ask your students to anonymously evaluate you on your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to face the worst comments. You can pick on one area of improvement and work on it. If the rules allow, take your friends as a guest into the classroom.

  1. Make your own list:

[This space is for you. I’m sure, you must be doing these already in your own ways. Think about how you can add on to the above ideas and personalize them for your students.]

Popular blogger Seth Godin once said, “If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.” Fellow passionate teacher, teach we must but let us also create awesome learning experiences for our students. Let’s keep trying.

Passionately yours,
Umes Shrestha

149. 10 Things You Can Do to Make Your Workshop Experience Productive


[Published on The Kathmandu Post, April 3 2017]

“You are just passively sitting in a group and not contributing anything at all.” I whispered to a participant during a recent workshop we had conducted. She hesitated a bit and gave me an awkward smile. During the break, she came up to me and said, “Actually, I didn’t know much about this workshop. My friend dragged me here with her. So I was a little lost during the activities.”

Initially, I had assumed that she was just trying to give me an excuse. But clearly, she didn’t know why she was there. Her confession made me think deeper on why participants act the way they act during workshops. And how, not only the trainer but also the participants should take responsibility for the effectiveness of the session.

As a teacher and teacher-trainer, I believe that a workshop is productive only when participants are ready to explore and co-create knowledge by getting physically, mentally, and emotionally involved in various activities. The trainer’s role is to deliver the content and facilitate the learning but in an effective workshop, participants must also take active roles to learn by doing and reflecting on their learning. As much as the participants want the trainer to be prepared, the trainer also dreams of having participants who are ready to participate and learn.

So, next time when you think about participating in a workshop, keep these ten things in your mind so that you can make your workshop experience worthwhile:

  1. Understand your real reasons for joining the workshop and check if they align with the workshop objectives (besides the price, timing, and location). You may have wanted to, for instance, improve your fiction writing skills, but the workshop might be about technical writing. Sometimes, you may simply be curious and want to learn new stuffs. No harm in that but you may not apply the learnings when there’s a mismatch of the goals.
  1. Understand the modality of the workshop. Ask for the format, duration, and delivery style. Most of the time, workshops turn out to be long lecture sessions that put the participants into coma. You may have different expectations. And when your expectations don’t match with the workshop, your motivation (and consequently, overall learning) might slump down to zero.
  1. If you have signed up for a workshop, try to get in touch with other participants. This is easy these days because most of the workshops are promoted through Facebook where you can see who else have clicked ‘Going’. Also, try to get in touch with the facilitator and ask your queries and confusions.

Continue reading

147. Making Presentations Matter

(Published on The Kathmandu Post national daily, July 25, 2916)

Making Presentations Matter

Let me assume that you have seen a lot of presentations, and that you have also delivered many of them. For a few minutes, imagine that you were an observer in these two situations.

Situation 1:

You are watching a student do a presentation of an assignment. He stands in front of the classroom, frozen with nervousness. He mumbles and stammers, takes many awkward pauses, and mostly reads from the slides. Occasionally, he looks at you and at the rest of the audience as if to scream that he wants to avoid the ordeal. You find no connection, and you feel you have wasted your time.

Situation 2:

You are in a seminar hall. A highly acclaimed professor is giving a presentation on her recent research findings. She talks about the title of her research (which is like 70 words long full of archaic words), objectives, questions, methodology, findings, interpretations, and so on. You wish to be somewhere else because she is lecturing you back to Research Methods class. Her presentation slogs like a monologue on a slow train towards boredom.

You probably have been in both situations. And you must have been eager to leave the room. On occasions, when you couldn’t, you must have felt the dullness of the presentations chocking your enthusiasm. Why do most of the presentations suck? In agony, you must have muttered.

Some of the regular responses would be: the presenter is not prepared, the slides are outrageous and stuffed, the content is boring, the presenter doesn’t have proper eye contact, the presenter speaks too fast or too slow, the presenter exceeds the time. These are all valid reasons.

But let me argue that most presentations suck not because of the presenter’s skills, nor his or her knowledge of the content, or the lack of eye contact, or bad body language. Most presentations suck because of the intent.

If you have wanted only to impress your audience, clients, customers, or teachers with your presentation skills, you know deep down inside that you have only half-succeeded. Because your intention primarily was just to make an impression. Not to create an impact, nor to make a difference. You wanted applauds. You wanted grades.

Your intent – the core reason – will either make or break your presentation.

So before you set out for a presentation, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do you intend just to deliver a stunning presentation or do you also intend to create an impact?
  2. Do you just want to showcase a bunch of shiny slides or do you also want to inspire action?
  3. Do you just care about your message or do you also care about the audience?

When you ask these questions, you will eventually see a clear picture. You will understand that you must put impact over impression. You will know that your job as a presenter is to be useful, be relentless, and be humble. That’s your core. And, you will find ways to structure your message, to design your slides, and to deliver your content – so that you just don’t talk, you also change minds, touch hearts, and transform lives.

Let your presentation skills amplify your intent – to disrupt patterns, break conventions, and inspire actions.

Now, please put yourself as a presenter in both situations I talked about earlier. You have sharpened your axes. You know your content. And you know your intent. You are determined to be useful, relentless, and humble. You care about your audience – their needs, their happiness, and their expectations.

Then, your presentation will matter. You will matter.

146. Why we don’t change


When people resist change, it is usually not because that they don’t know about the problem. I know that eating momos is not going to help me lose weight, but still I’m eating them. My mom knows that oily vegetable dishes are not healthy, but still she likes drowning potatoes in oil. Same with the smokers. They know cigarettes are unhealthy and can cause cancer. But still, many keep smoking.

Same goes for some teachers who resist change. They understand that they need to change. Teaching is not what is used to be 20 years ago. They know that their method is obsolete, their practice is ridiculously traditional and their knowledge is outdated. But still, many embrace the status quo.

Telling people – you need to change – is not going to work.

When educational institutions want their teachers to change, they send the teachers for training and try to give them new knowledge, skill, and attitude. Trainers think that if the teachers just understood about the new techniques, they would implement those techniques in the classroom. Or if the teachers just understood the importance of professional development, they would just start changing.

Still, nothing happens. Teachers fall back to their usual habit even after attending trainings and workshops.

This could be the problem. In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath say: knowledge rarely leads to change.

Students make noise in the class. They know that making noise is not right. They are wasting everyone’s time. But they still do it.

Street protesters know that burning rubber tire is harmful to health and detrimental to the environmental. But they still do it.

Employees waste time gossiping and pulling each other’s legs. They know it’s not productive. But they still do it.

The FM radio in our kitchen is always switched on. While listening to the morning news, the Nepal Traffic Police update, almost every day, says that over a hundred people were charged for “maa.paa.say” which means they were driving vehicles while being drunk. The ‘maa.paa.say’ rule has already been imposed for over two years but still people drink and drive (and get arrested and pay heavy fines).

They know the rule but they still make a mockery of it. Because, knowledge rarely leads to change.

Thus the big question: can we change? How? Let me leave these questions for you to figure them out.

(Inspired by Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to change things when change is hard)

139. Being my own critic


Once I attended a workshop. Just because I didn’t want to get bored staying home. The workshop was horrible. I couldn’t get anything out of it. I should have instead slept in my bed the whole day. But I did learn after all. I learnt how not to conduct a workshop. That was a big lesson. In the hindsight, I could have snored my day away, but I ended up learning even more.

I have attended many teacher-training workshops and terribly wished I had been somewhere else. I have hated the trainers for being cocky, smartass and condescending. But I have also learnt from them on how not to behave with the participants. Every workshop, good or bad, is full of lessons.

The big question – what about what I do in my own workshops. Hurling nasty comments at others is easy while I pretend to be a Mr-Know-All trainer.