One of my favorite tactics to improve students’ understanding is a nice and terrible non-example. Often, seeing a very bad version of something helps us see why a great example is great.
When “Bad” Helps To Understand “Great”
Steven Spielberg’s an outstanding action director. But why? When I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, I certainly like it, but it’s hard to know what makes it great.
Enter Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show in which a man and two robots watch bad movies and make funny comments and a staple of my childhood.
My wife and I watched the Werewolf episode (which, amazingly, is available in its entirety on YouTube). We marveled at how terrible the action scenes were. The cuts were confusing. We couldn’t tell where the actors were. Rather than having fun, we ended up with headaches.
This terrible experience clarified why Spielberg is a great action director. Re-watching Raiders, I could see how well he set up the action, keeping me aware of where everyone was and where they were going. I never felt confused.
Likewise, while watching the NBA Playoffs, seeing a perfectly-run defense isn’t as helpful as seeing one terrible defensive play. When a team messes up, I can finally see why the “good” defense is so good.
Why is Super Mario Brothers a classic video game? Pop in a random game from the 80s and it becomes immediately apparent just what makes Super Mario great.
It’s the same when teaching. If we only show students the “great example,” they won’t understand why it’s great. Accompany those exemplars with a terrible non-example.
- Want to improve writing? Intentionally write a bad example to highlight common patterns.
- Want to emphasize how writing out the steps can help to solve equations correctly? Also demonstrate how a short-cut can lead to a disaster.
- Want higher-quality final products? Create a terrible version that shows students what not to do.
- Want better presentations? Give a really bad presentation to contrast with a high quality, pro example. Use Steve Jobs and Elon Musk!
- Want to improve study habits? Contrast a great study environment with a distracting one.
These non-examples are quick, they’re super fun to create, and they really help those students who simply don’t understand why a good example is good.
I find that a great exemplar raises the ceiling of what students think is possible, but the non-example raises the floor of what is acceptable. It really helps struggling students identify what, specifically, they can improve to emulate the greats.
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