Special Section: Metro Learning Curve
Suzanne Park photo
Consider the following hypothesis: the skills Paul Delaney developed as an astronomer — namely, the ability to observe and to learn from his observations — are also what make him such a good teacher.
But Delaney, true to form, explains his success in a much more down-to-earth fashion. “What motivated me to go into teaching is the same thing that compels me to go look at the stars,” he says cheerfully.
“It’s my love of astronomy and my desire to share it. I want to transmit my love of astronomy to everybody.”
Delaney, an Australian-born senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at York University, was named one of the top 10 lecturers in the province by TVOntario, which also broadcast one of his class presentations.
When asked why he’s so popular with his students, Delaney just laughs. “Well, the simple answer is that I’m interested in them. I teach not because I like to hear my own voice or to transmit information, but to convey excitement about something that I find exciting and hopefully they will find exciting.”
Delaney describes his teaching style as interactive. “To me, if you’re going to be a successful communicator or educator you have to get the students to buy into what it is you’re talking about. If they’re asleep it’s hard for them to buy in. So you want to keep them awake, you want to keep them interested, you want to keep them enthused.”
But he’s also made a point of learning what does and doesn’t work in the classroom, and whether a student truly understands what’s being taught.
For instance, he expects interaction from his students and challenges them to argue politely about various aspects of what he’s teaching. But this sometimes means putting shy students on the spot.
“Sometimes students really will almost cower and you have to make a decision whether they’re reluctant to communicate because they are truly physically overwhelmed,” he says.
“That does happen and there’s no point forcing them into a corner and making them feel small. So you back away and speak with them afterwards and get your points across and interact with them more one-on-one. But, most students are going to go out into the world and whether they like it or not are going to be forced to interact.”
Over the years, Delaney has developed interesting ways to encourage participation and make learning fun. One such exercise is what he calls “Bus Stop.” A student will have to draw a topic out of his hat and two minutes later be forced to talk about it. This, he believes, encourages creativity and generates humour, which the other students seem to appreciate.
Like the night sky, though, Delaney’s greatest appeal may be his accessibility. “When I’m at the observatory, students know they can be with me until 3 a.m. and chatter more or less as an equal,” he says. “They also know that if they’re observing without me I’m just a phone call away, even if it’s 2 or 3 a.m. The fact that I’m available gives me approachability. It gives them the confidence that this is a person they can work with.”
Metro Learning Curve
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