Teaching is a joy. The first few classes of a maritime teacher are fun. You are highly motivated, interested in your topic, and the experience is novel. Then, a few months later, tedium sets it. Sometimes you discover that your students are not always as excited about the topic as you are. Sometimes, you find yourself losing steam and excitement, for teaching the same topic, day in and day out, for months or even years on end is tough and can get repetitive, notes Capt. Sriram Rajagopal Senior QHSE & Training Superintendent, Anglo Eastern Ship Management.
eaching is a lot like performing, and we teachers perform each day in front of their class. We are, in many ways like stage actors. We gradually learn the ‘moves’, learn to avoid the ‘sticky feet’ syndrome, figure out what to do with our hands (how much should we wave them around?), learn how to make sense of General Learning Objectives (GLOs) and Specific Learning Objectives (SLOs), and with experience, we learn ways to evince interest and reaction from our students. That is the life of a teacher. For this article, I use the terms teacher and trainer interchangeably, though there are some differences between them and in maritime education, we are often required to play both roles. But teaching still remains a satisfying occupation.
In this article, we present some methods can make it even more satisfying for both, the teacher and the students. They come from experiences of myself and my colleagues as trainers in maritime education and training (MET) institutes, classrooms and universities
Differences between teaching in the maritime sector
There is good reason for this article, for we need to bridge the gap between what we are taught as trainers and the real world we face in the classroom. The techniques described in the two week ‘train the trainer’ course (IMO model course 6.09) and from other settings may not always work in the maritime sector. Three large differences exist between maritime training and general education and training. In the maritime sector, our students tend to range in age from 18 to 65 and it is common to find young 23 year old third officers and 55 year old Masters in the same class. Secondly, maritime students often have far more real world experience than university students. Thirdly, our students look for what they can use practically in their next ship, rather than theoretical concepts. These can pose challenges to the teacher. However, these differences can also be used to make teaching and learning more interesting, effective and useful for both, the teacher and student.
Here are five such ways that you can use to make your teaching even more interesting, effective and enjoyable. If you like them, the bouquets go to my colleagues who taught me these techniques and my students how forced me to learn them quickly:
1. Start your class with a question
Questions are excellent triggers. They grab the students’ attention, set the mood and make them think. In fact, don’t stop there. Every time you want to evince interest from students, ask them questions. Sometimes, you may wait for their answer. Sometimes, you can give them clues. And sometimes, the question can be rhetorical, with the teacher giving the answer. You can ask questions directly from particular students, without embarrassing them or you can ask them in general to the entire class. This especially works well in topics like cargo work where diverse practices exist worldwide depending on the cargo and port.
One of my colleagues who worked on a few bulk carriers as an officer, but never as a chief officer, was asked to teach bulk carrier courses. He employed this method. He asked students to describe challenging situations they had faced in various ports. He was as interested as other students in these experiences, which became a major learning for all the attendees, for port related bulk carrier practices vary across the world. He peppered them with questions till he had nearly lived through the experience. He then read more about these ports and cargoes from P&I club bulletins, and now refers to the examples and these bulletins in his courses, making them amazingly informative. If by chance a student asks a question which he does not know the answer to, he simply admits to them that he does not know, and that he had sailed on bulk carriers as a third officer, but never had the opportunity to sail on them as a chief officer or Master. This never ceases to amaze his students, who wonder how he knows so much! He also promises to find the answer and let them know.
This ‘technique’ works equally well in comparatively static topics like navigation. If you want to commence discussion, keep your questions open ended (Begin your question with the words “Who, What, Where, Why, When”). It helps if you have some idea of the answer. As you practice this technique, you will get better at it. A colleague of mine who uses this technique told me that he often thinks up relevant questions for each day’s topics during his daily commute to the training center. That makes his questions unique every day, and ensures his as well as his students’ interest in the class. Every class becomes a new learning experience for all of them.
Questions come in various flavors. Some questions can be rhetorical. Others might have a clear yes or no answer. It depends. But one thing they all do is make the listener think. They can often be a wakeup call – Literally, especially in those comfy otherwise sleepy afternoon classes!
2. Encourage discussion – but know when to stop
Many seafarers look for opportunities to share their experiences with fellow seafarers. Encourage them to describe their perspectives with respect to the topic being taught. You do not have to have answers to every question, but should have an idea of where you want the class to go. This also helps the teacher in improving his real world knowledge, since most of us stop sailing to teach, yet we want to stay abreast with the latest practices used on ships to day. Unlike university classes and cadet training where most learning occurs one way from the teacher to the student, competency courses and value added courses tend to have students with anywhere from three to thirty years of real world sea going experience. In the latter, learning happens both, form the teacher as well as between students. In other words, discussions improve the quality of learning. A note of caution – if you find the discussion wavering to other topics, getting excessively heated or preventing you from proceeding with your planned topics, don’t hesitate to call time. You are the referee of the class.
A colleague of mine, whose classes are always alive with discussion usually wears a wristwatch (to remind him of the time). When he wants to proceed with the topics he had planned for that session, he stands, makes eye contact with the class, makes a “T” shape with his palms and once they have quietened down (it takes just 20 seconds), summarizes the learning from the discussion, and says “let us now continue with the topic – this was a great discussion, but we have some more topics to cover – let us continue with them. We can of course continue this discussion after the class is over”. He tells me it always works, and sometimes, the students continue the discussion over coffee or lunch. He loves the latter, for it shows that his class really got them thinking. Also, while students like relevant experience sharing, they find the teacher who only weaves pointless ‘sea stories’ shallow and irrelevant.
Avoid the dreaded phrases “In my times…” and “When I was a ….” unless absolutely necessary. The key here is to narrate an incident that is relevant to the top.
3. Use lots of practical examples
Teaching navigation and the international regulations for the prevention of collisions at sea is far more interesting when you describe a real life accident that took place due to noncompliance. Photos help bring up the gravity of these accidents to the classroom and can be easily found online, especially from well written official investigation reports. We learn best when told stories, but stories without a message can just taper off. Make sure you clearly state the message and learning from the real life story that you are telling – and repeat it a few times. Don’t confuse your students. They may not always agree with you, that is ok. In the maritime sector, there are some situations where there is no one right answer.
4. Don’t get married to Power point
Don’t get me wrong on this. Power point is good, especially to show photos, bullet points, definitions and details. However, it is just a tool – it is the teacher who is the main conduit who facilitates learning. Don’t make power point the teacher! Use it to remember what you want to teach, and to keep the class in focus. Use it for facts, photos and diagrams. Don’t read off everything from your slide – students can do that easily without you. Instead, build up on your slide. Keep your slides sparse – about 4-5 short bullet points per slide (else students sitting in the last line will not be able to read it). Avoid animations, bells and whistles. Avoid long paragraphs and sentences.
Use the blackboard or whiteboard. It is one of the best friends of a teacher. In fact, the Derek Bok Center at Harvard arranges special training for teachers on how to use the blackboard effectively. You can use it to write the most important concepts that you want your students to take home. One of my colleagues who teaches competency as well as value added courses has a habit of writing the 10 most important concepts on a corner of the blackboard or whiteboard. It acts as a reminder for him, and enables students to thereafter make notes/take a photo of it with their cellphones and dwell on them.
5. Be free to use props. Be free to use games. Joke. But stick to your strengths
Props are not just for the television program “Whose line is it anyway”. They can be used in the classroom in too. A teacher of mine used the walls and ceiling of our second mates classroom to teach us the framing used on a ship by making us imagine that we were sitting in a tank. For those who had never been inside a tank (there were a few such lucky students), he showed a few photos that he obtained from a colleague who was a ship superintendent and had just visited a ship. I still remember that class, twenty five years later. Today, we have even more tools available, Try to obtain and use live working models – especially to teach difficult machinery and processes that are difficult to visualize. This includes learning how to use the self-container breathing apparatus (SCBA), emergency escape breathing device (EEBD), the use, testing and calibration of gas detectors, opening and closing of hatch covers, hydraulic machinery, valves and pipes.
Topics like the overhaul of oily water separator can be best learnt with real equipment – try to obtain working models – or make your own non-working model. One of the training centers that I visited created a ballast tank out of concrete in the campus and used it to teach students enclosed space entry safety. Another bought mooring winches, mooring leads and mooring ropes from a scrapyard (for a steal!), installed them in the campus, and voila! They were able to created a working replica of working forecastle with mooring winches, dead man rollers, and trained students on mooring safety using it. Teaching the topic would have been boring and irrelevant in a 40 minute classroom session. Teaching this on the ‘campus forecastle’ on the other hand was so interesting that students stayed on at the ‘foc’sle’ after their 40 minute class was over! Use your imagination to devise your own props. A friend of mine enlivens his classes using amateur paper and cardboard models made by him for specific topics. Sometimes the students make them. If anyone makes fun of them, he simply asks them how they can be improved. He says his best ideas have come from his harshest critics.
Every teacher has his or her own unique strengths and weaknesses. Be aware of your strengths and use them in the class. Be aware of your weaknesses and while you can try to improve them, resist the temptation to employ them. A colleague of mine has a great sense of humour – he uses it in the class, quietly covering every topic that he is required to cover and his classes are rarely quiet. Another colleague of mine has a terrible sense of humour, but he has the ability to simplify complex topics. He chooses to do so, using the blackboard a lot. Students enjoy both classes. As Polonius famously said in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true”.