A number of experiences lately have brought me back to one of my fundamental principles of understanding (not just teaching or learning): do it yourself.
There is simply no better way that I know of learning, of understanding, of developing empathy, or of evaluating.
I often find holes in my homework or materials when I
attempt to do it. I find other realms of inquiry, new areas of
vocabulary, grammar that might be necessary, and examples that might be
helpful by trying it myself. I discover issues in
timing--homework that is too long or assignments that fail to provoke a
long enough contemplation of the point to be useful. And perhaps most
important, I find problems of unfairness. I find bias. I find areas in
which I ask questions that my students lack the skill to answer or
cannot answer due to social constraints that I hadn't thought about
before I did it myself.
And maybe the most effective (not
most important) consequence of doing it myself is providing modeling and
earning the respect of my students. If I learn another language in the
same way I teach English to my students, that carries weight with
them. If they see me write the same essay that they do and then pick
apart my own work in editing (and I do this because I largely doubt the
effectiveness of peer review at the lower levels until the students have
really been trained BOTH EXPLICITLY AND BY EXAMPLE how to edit), then I
have convinced them that I am not wasting their time on busy work.
Furthermore, for young students, it is the beginning of teaching them to
be colleagues, and for adult students, it is an innate acknowledgment
that I know that they are intelligent even if they can't communicate
what they know in my language.
And I have found that this level
of respect flings open the doors to learning faster than anything else
that I have seen with the exception of bodily care. People want to be
seen and heard. We can better do that when we take a few moments, stand
in their place, and do what they do.