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.