It was just a joke, plain and simple.

The maths course changed at the start of the year. I teach it with a colleague and one of the things that we try to do is jointly plan. Regular readers will know that I frame lessons around a PowerPoint presentation and so, as part of this planning, there were new presentations to make.

Early on, I wrote an example question about probability and decided to use the context of capybaras. These South American mammals are, I believe, the largest rodents in the world and they have a slightly absurd quality that appealed to me. I included some capybara facts after the example question.

About a week later, I thought that I would play a trick and I inserted a slide into the upcoming presentation. It included a gif of some capybaras taking a bath accompanied by cheesy music. I thought I’d inserted it late enough that my colleague wouldn’t see it until it appeared in the lesson. That didn’t work. He noticed it beforehand but he kept it in because he thought it was funny.

And so the capybaras have been appearing ever since. They’ve become the course mascot with pictures of capybaras printed on question booklets. The students seem to enjoy it.

One student who knows that I am researching educational psychology, asked me if there was a principle that I was employing here. He suggested that the capybaras had made a difficult course a little bit friendlier and less scary for the students. I explained that, no, there wasn’t any principle behind it: It was just a joke but I was glad that he found it positive.

So why am I writing about this? Well, if the question is ‘what is the most effective form of instruction?’ then, if you read my blog, you will see that I have opinions on that. However, this is not always the question. In some ways the capybaras probably slightly reduce the efficiency of instruction because they take up time and cause a distraction. But that’s not the point. That’s not why they’re there.

In a similar way, you could make an argument for, say, project work. I don’t think project work is the most effective form of instruction for novice learners and I will dispute claims that it is. But there is a case to be made for it on the basis of a variety of experience – I enjoyed completing projects at school and you could view them as something of a rite of passage. 

So my message is this: if you recognise the effectiveness of explicit instruction then that does not mean you have no room in your teaching for a few projects or dancing capybaras.

7 thoughts on “Capybaras

  1. I’m still curious about “explicit instruction” versus “whole language.” When the District allowed “whole language,” we used a certain researcher’s approach. Since this is not a forum for advertising, I will not mention the researcher. Our daily –and that meant every single day, not when we could get around to it, or when we felt like it– included 30 min. of phonics, 30 of independent reading, 30 of guided instruction, and 30 of writing. Now we are a committed response-to-intervention, explicit and direct instruction everything school. Students get 30 minutes of phonics instruction each day…

    1. If you don’t mention the researcher, you make it very difficult to answer your question! However, it’s important to understand that Whole Language was more a philosophy than an explicit “method” of teaching reading, which allowed for a variety of interpretations. But my understanding is that the most common Whole Language approaches would not expect phonics to be taught explicitly and systematically, in discrete half hour sessions, but rather on an as-needed basis, when other methods of “making meaning” from a particular text (such as guessing from context) had failed. This ties in with the belief of Goodman, one of the founders of whole language, that “reading is a psycho-linguistic guessing game”. This gave rise to the Three-Cuing System, in which semantic and syntactic “cues” to identifying words in context took priority over “grapho-phonic” cues, and children were encouraged to use the former before resorting to the latter.

  2. I love to use humour and it shows up in many and unexpected (even to me, in advance) ways into my classes. Yet I am disturbed by a line that has been on our class evaluation forms for over 15 years now. Students are to indicate, on a 5-point scale, the degree to which their (university) instructors have used humour to “enhance instruction” in the course being evaluated.

    Exactly why are we evaluated on this basis? Who decided that a sober, humourless professor who’s nevertheless excellent in articulation and clarity and whose lessons hit home with great reliability, ought to be penalized for not using jokes to “liven things up”? Can’t we all have our own style? And somehow this seems as bad as the bore who has to explain every joke for the crowd … we murder to dissect. Some humour is too subtle to even slap with that label. And much of the best defies explanation: that was funny because … er, I’m not sure. It was just funny.

    Can’t we let those for whom humour comes naturally into their lessons use it freely, without treating this as some great accomplishment, some professional qualification; and without putting career pressure on all others to enter into competition with them in an accelerating spiral of stand-up comedy lectures?

    We can’t all be Don Rickles … and wouldn’t it be a tragedy if every lecture were, of necessity, a comedy?

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