How the Best Teachers Begin Their Lessons

Quick question for coaches and teachers: What’s the single most important moment of a lesson? Is it:

  • (A) the initial explanation of the skill being taught?
  • (B) the first couple tries?
  • (C) the moment things click, when the learner “gets it”?

I think the answer is (D) — None of the Above.

There’s a strong case to be made that the single most important moment of learning happens before the lesson actually begins.

We know that master coaches are extremely skilled at quickly making a strong emotional connection with a learner, to create the bond of trust that’s the foundation of all learning.

But mere emotional connection isn’t enough. The world is filled with extremely charismatic, fantastically entertaining teachers who are wonderful at creating connection but not so great at actually improving skill.

Because it’s not enough just to capture the learner’s attention — you have to create intention: an urgent desire to work hard toward a concrete goal, toward some vision of their future self.

Science is giving us a peek inside that process. A group of researchers at Case Western were able to look at the brains of learners in two conditions. In the first, the coach was judgmental, and focused on negatives and the past. In the second, the coach was empathetic, and focused on the future.

With the judgmental coach, the visual cortex showed limited activity. With the positive, future-oriented coach, however, it lit up like a Christmas tree. The researchers concluded that this correlated with someone imagining their future.

The takeaway: when it comes to learning, brains work exactly like flashlights. It’s not enough just to turn them on; they have to be pointed toward a target.

A few simple ways to do this:

  • Encourage expression about future goals. Where do they want to be a month from now? A year? Five years?
  • Ruthlessly eliminate negative statements — especially judgements — that cause brains to shut down.
  • Count down until some Big Future Event. How many practices do we have left until the tournament? How many more lessons until the recital?  A calendar with Xs is a powerful tool.
How else? What other tips do you have for clicking on those flashlights?