Train the Trainer: Mirror, Mirror

Several weeks ago, as I was reviewing about 5,000 end-of-the-semester course evaluations reflecting the work of 25 full-time instructors (plus a slew of adjuncts), I noticed a trend.  Oh sure, there were the usual comments about grading policies and reading assignments, but I also noticed that a large number of the surveys mentioned the instructor’s enthusiasm.  It was no big surprise that the positive evaluations mentioned the instructor’s obvious love of the subject matter and their enthusiasm in class.  This I have seen before.  However, I noticed an overwhelming amount of the less-than-perfect evaluations had statements such as “the teacher just didn’t have any passion” or “instructor showed no enthusiasm for the class or the material.” Ouch.

As educators, we are always looking for that spark that will engage our students, and we’re always told to “be enthusiastic.” I’ve told myself and my faculty that very thing a thousand times.  But reading those surveys brought out the Academic in me and I wanted to know “why”.  Why is it that gusto of the teacher has such an impact on the student in terms of both engagement and learning?  The answer, it seems, is something called “Mirror Neurons.”

Mirror Neurons are a recent discovery, having been first identified in 1980 by an Italian Neuroscientist named Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti. Dr. Rizzolatti and his team discovered that in a monkey’s brain, the exact same neuron is fired when a monkey performs a specific act, such as grasping a peanut, as when the monkey observed a human perform the same act.   It seems that “monkey see, monkey do” might be the exact same thing, at least to the neurons in the monkey’s brain! 

This initial discovery, soon termed “mirror neurons,” led to research on human mirror neurons, and some fascinating implications for education.  The two facets of mirror neurons that I find the most interesting and relevant to adult education are:  (1) Mirror neurons allow us to feel what someone else is feeling, and (2) Mirror neurons allow us to learn through observation as well as action. 

Mirroring Emotions

We’ve all experienced the effect of mirror neurons on our emotional state; in fact, we experience it everyday.  You are walking down the street and somebody barely misses getting hit by a car – woah! Your heart starts racing, you recoil in sympathy, you actually feel the fear in your gut. Or you find yourself enjoying a nice movie, having a great time, but as soon as the leading lady gets her heart broken, you can’t stop crying! For decades, such responses puzzled neuroscientists. Now we know that on a certain level, watching something happen to someone else and having it happen to us fires up a reaction in the same part of the brain – right down to a single neuron. 

The implication for education is pretty strong; if the teacher is in a good mood, that good mood will rub off on the class. If the teacher is enthusiastic about the subject, your students’ mirror neurons will fire off a corresponding enthusiasm in their brains as well.  And we all know that enthusiasm, engagement, and attention all equal enhanced knowledge retention, so anything I can do to enthuse my class is a good start. I don’t know about you, but just knowing about mirror neurons makes me feel much more responsible for my mood in class; who knew we really could affect one another’s outlooks so directly?

Of course, as teachers we have all experienced the flip side of the mirror neurons in action:  one student in a foul mood can bring the whole class down, and quickly.  Thankfully, as the person standing in front of the room, you  can reign in or remove Debbie Downer from the back row before the negative classroom phenomenon that I have always called “the feeding frenzy” gets out of control. 

Mirroring Knowledge

One of the very cool “tricks of the trade” we have as educators is to tie new information to something the student already knows. This is known as “anchoring information” and involves finding an aspect of some a topic that might be familiar to the students– such as  the “Charlemagne” of “Corton-Charlemagne” – before introducing new information -such as the geography of Aloxe-Corton.  The familiar topic, already safely present in long-term memory, provides an existing framework that  helps working memory grasp onto and make sense of new information.

This technique is so profoundly successful that I have often wondered just how we aquire that first bit of new information about a topic.  If we have no knowledge to anchor to, what lights the spark that leads to the acquiring of original knowledge? Rote repitition?  I hope not.  Relevant visuals?  They only work some of the time.  The answer could lie in mirror neurons. 

It seems that new knowledge, including that which occurs in babies learning to make sense of the world and the ease with which young children acquire new languages, is the direct  result of the action of mirror neurons.  A baby watches the people around her and soon figures out how to move, and walk, and talk.  

It sounds amazing, but it just could be true that without the direct learning of new knowledge and skills that is afforded by mirror neurons, there would be no basis on which to build (“anchor”) new learning. 

Maximizing the Mirror

There’s one more fascinating implication for education:  the effect of mirror neurons is amplified with study.  This was proven at a 2003 study at the University College of London, led by Dr. Daniel Glaser, that tested mirror neurons at a dance demonstration. The test found that people who had studied ballet showed more mirror neuron activity during a ballet demonstration than those who had not.  It’s a fascinating conclusion, but do you think my students will do their textbook reading assignments if I tell them it will amplify their mirror neuron reaction during the next class? 

Perhaps I should just keep that to myself.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas

missjane@prodigy.net

Flip it Good!

The Flipped Classroom…we’ve all heard and read a great deal about it, and I have been enthusiastically using it in my Professional Wine Studies Class for about a year.  (In case this is the first time you’ve heard of flipping a classroom, you can read one of my original posts about it here.)

About a week ago, I wrapped up a semester of teaching in a mode that I deem “as flipped as humanly possible.”  I tried to take every possible opportunity to fill my classes with “ABL” (Anything But Lecture),  while making sure that the “transmission” of new knowledge occurred one way or another, whether inside or outside the classroom.  (In a true “flipped classroom”, the transmission of learning takes place outside the classroom.  This assumes our students do the reading or the watching of assigned videos.  I’m still easing my students into that idea.)

To achieve my “as flipped as possible” goal, I used in-class activities, discussions, and group projects daily.  Sometimes the activities worked out great, and sometimes I found myself tap-dancing to keep the class in order. 

Here’s a few things I learned during my semester of flipping dangerously:   

1.  Keep the groups small.  I found that for a many projects, 2 students is an ideal number.  It seems that with only two students in a group, no one can afford to be the “group slacker.”  Three people in a group also works well, but in groups of 4 or more you tend to have 1 or 2 people working diligently, and 1 or 2 people playing on their iPhones.

2.  As soon as the teams are arranged, have the teams choose a group leader who will be responsible for turning work in, presenting their work to the class or ensuring that the group gets credit for their assignment, in whatever form that is. 

3.  Always have “extra credit” or “further learning” sections of a project available for the one hot shot group or team that does a great job and finishes before everyone else.  If you don’t have extra activities for them, the hot shot group will not have anything left to do and may feel that class is a “waste of time.”

4.  Pre-script every class project or discussion with “Come Get Me” moments.  Design these so that after each segment of a class project, the students stop and discuss it with you before moving on.  Another way to keep the class on an even keel is to divide a group project into chunks that should take about 15 minutes to a half hour.  After every “chunk”, bring the class back together to share and discuss their findings.  

6.  Most important of all, remember that the time when your class is working in groups or otherwise on projects, you as the instructor are still “on stage” as much as when you are lecturing.  This is NOT your time to catch up on your email, read a book, or grade papers.  While you don’t want to “hover over them” and make everyone nervous, you also don’t want to disengage.  I’ve found the best thing for me to do while the students are working in groups is to sit down somewhere off to the side of the classroom and keep an eye on the groups, much as I do when proctoring a test. That way everyone knows where to find me, no one feels like they are “interrupting” me when they ask for help, and I can quickly respond to a group that wants to “flag me over”.

What do you think?  Do you have any “Flip it Good” advice?  We’d love to hear from you!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas

Wine Class Choreography

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Wine class choreography…it has an exciting ring to it, doesn’t it?  I hope so, because I hardly expected you to click on an article titled “Instructional Design.”  However, they really mean the same thing; and it is something that is really lacking in wine education today.

So just what is instructional design?  Think of it this way:  You have a great dancer who knows lots of steps and just can’t wait to show them off…and you have some great music.  What else do you need to do before you can put on a great dance show?  You need to plan what you are going to first, then next, how you will trasition from one style of dance to another, and how to tie it all up at the end.  You need choreography!

Planning a class is a lot like planning a show.  First, you need a concept and learning objectives, and then you fill in the content.  When this is done you have the dancer, all those steps he can’t wait to break out, and the music; but you don’t yet have a plan.  The biggest challenge is still ahead of you.

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How are you going to present the material?  How are you going to make sure that your audience can follow along with what you are saying?  How can you help them understand, remember, and remain engaged with the material?  Just exactly how are you going to do to fill those 120 minutes with 60 eyes looking straight at you?

What you need is some wine class choreography – in other words, you need some Instructional Design.  Step by step, beat by beat, you need to decide in advance what will be done.  Instructional Design is the process of taking your bundle of eager information and transforming it into a learning experience that helps your students make sense of, remember, and engage with the new information they  will receive.

There are a lot of concepts and theories about Instructional Design, and with the advent of online education the term takes on a whole new dimension.  But, as is often true, the strongest theories stand the test of time.  One of the best expressions of instructional design is Robert Gagné’s “Nine Steps of Instruction” that has been around since 1985.

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In this version of the “Nine Steps of Instructional Design,” I present my own ideas about instructional design, but all of this is firmly rooted in (and hopefully pays homage to) the “Nine Steps” of Gagné’s original work.

Step 1 – Focus, Focus, Focus! In the words of Gagné, gain their attention! Present a problem or a new situation. Use an “interest device” that grabs the learner’s attention. The important point in wine education is to focus the learners. You can use such devices as storytelling, demo, present a problem to be solved, doing something the wrong way, asking a question, or taking an “audience poll.”  The point is, do something to focus the class!

Step 2 – What’s in it for me?  Tell them how they will benefit from your class.  In academic words, “inform the learner of the objective”. Keep their attention by telling them how they will benefit from what they are about to learn.  Everyone likes to know “What’s in it for me?”It also gives your students a goal on which to focus for the rest of the class.

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Step 3. Where does this fit in to my life? It’s very important to put your topic in the context of your learner’s life.  Find some common ground or prior knowledge relevant to the current lesson.  This simple step provides a framework for learning and remembering the new information about to be received.

Step 4. Tell me what I need to know! This seemingly simple step needs to be choreographed very carefully.  It’s not just what you present but how you present it.  Be sure to organize your information to avoid cognitive overload. Blend the information to aid in information recall. This is a huge subject and one that is often ignored by trainers and teachers.

Step 5. How do I learn this? Provide guidance for learning.This is not the presentation of content, but is rather your guidance and instructions on how to learn the new material. If this step is well done, your students will enjoy your class and learn more.  Students that are guided are less likely to lose time , become frustrated or just “tune out”.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice!  Make sure the students do something with their new skills or information. With tasting classes this is easy, but make sure you guide them to a specific goal in their tasting.  With knowledge-based classes you need to get a little more creative in your use of or class activities – just make sure you have one, otherwise all you have done is “dumped” new information in the general direction of your students.  (Oh, not good…)

Step 7 – Am I doing it right? Do I get it?  Provide feedback. This can be casual, individual, or with the group as a whole, but everyone needs to know if they are on the right track. To be effective, feedback needs to be specific, not, “you are doing a good job” Tell them “why” they are doing a good job,

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Step 8 – How did we do? Assess performance. Test to determine if the lesson has been learned. This can be a quiz, an activity, or a or class discussion.

Step 9 – How can I use this? – The final steps in your class should be designed to enhance the retention and transfer of the new knowledge. Discuss how this new information can be used, provide opportuniites for additional practice, or review the lesson.  Somehow, some way, your student’s life should be changed by their new knowledge.  Even if it just means they are going to buy a better brand of Chardonnay.

Every class does not have to include all nine steps, but keeping these steps in mind before you begin a class will go a long way to improving your teaching. Remember that good teaching goes way, way beyond the imparting of information.  Unfocused teaching  is more like an information dump.  Don’t be a dumper—use instructional design! 

Reference/for further learning:

Gagné, Robert. The Conditions of Learning and the Theory of Instruction (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.

What is “Sticky Teaching”?

 Just what is Sticky Teaching???

Over the years, I’ve written dozens of articles and essays on the subject of “Sticky Teaching.”  I’ve given hundreds of workshops called “Sticky Teaching.”  I have read articles on the subject written by other people, and attended their Sticky Teaching workshops as well.  One of the more memorable had the attendees (my befuddled self included) sitting in circles and reciting the ten Grand Crus of Beaujolais while slapping our legs and snapping our fingers.  Perhaps that session should have been called “Snappy Teaching.”

I was reflecting on this “sticky teaching history” earlier this morning as I sat down at my computer to design yet another handout for yet another workshop on “Sticky Teaching.”  In this light, I thought it might be a good idea to come up with a new and improved definition of just what is meant by “Sticky Teaching”.  Keep in mind that this is my personal definition, reflecting my teaching style, and by that I mean that any other educator in the world is allowed to have their own definition of “sticky teaching” and I will respect it!

Here it is, the 2012 definition of Sticky Teaching, Bubbly Professor style:  Sticky Teaching is teaching that is engaging, understood, and memorable.

It’s simple:  in order to provide teaching that sticks, first, we need to teach in a manner that not only grabs the attention of but also nurtures the engagement of the audience over the long haul – the entire course of the class and beyond. Second, we need to make sure our lesson is simplified and organized in such a way so that the main points of the lesson are easy to comprehend.  While the  A+++ students may easily grasp the whole lesson including the details, we need to ensure that every student can and will understand the “gist”. Last but not least, we need to somehow present the topic so that it breaks through the limitation of short-term memory and becomes permanently embedded in long-term memory.     

When stated this way, the goal of sticky teaching sounds like it may take a lifetime to achieve, and it probably will. Teaching is a profession that lends itself to constant improvement.  Even the best teachers I know are always looking for ways to improve their teaching. Most likely, that is why they are the best teachers I know.

Here are a few examples of the techniques of sticky teaching: 

 Sticky Teaching is Engaging:

  • Use Dramatic Tension (keep them wondering “what happened next”)
  • Create a Knowledge Gap (pique curiosity by setting up a “mystery”)
  • Use concept testing (Have students make a prediction and then prove/disprove)
  • Heed the ten-minute rule (Change the locus of attention every ten minutes)
  • Challenge the audience (Make critical thinking part of every class) 
  • Make it experiential (Replace abstract theories with concrete experiences)

Sticky Teaching is Understood:

  • Identify your core message (Keep it easy to understand)
  • Use statistics in understandable form (use the human scale principle)
  • Provide Cognitive Guidance (point out what’s important to know)
  • Use the power of Schema (put things in context)

Sticky Teaching is Memorable:

  • Anchor information (tie new topics to information the student already knows)
  • Use ECS (Emotionally Competent Stimuli)
  • Use the narrative approach (Tell Stories)
  • Use the PSE (pictorial superiority effect)
  • Utilize dual coding (sync the visual and the verbal channel)

Obviously, some of these teaching techniques overlap categories. For instance, telling stories is a great way to be engaging, make your message understood and is memorable as well.  Story telling is a sticky teaching trifecta! However, in homage to what is probably the most important rule of sticky teaching – identify your core message – I did my best to create three categories and organize the topics within them (demonstrating another principle of sticky teaching, providing cognitive guidance.)

To wrap it all up: Sticky Teaching is teaching that is engaging, understood and memorable.

 

Train the Trainer: Critical Thinking in the Wine Classroom

One of my rallying cries in wine education and ALL education for that matter, is to teach our student skills far, far beyond the basic memorization of facts.  I’ve spoken at many a conference on this matter, and have dedicated many of my posts on this blog to the subject.  It’s all about teaching to the “higher order thinking skills” known as (I’m not making this up) “HOTS” rather than just teaching to knowledge or memorization, known as “lower order thinking skills” or “LOTS”.

One of the best ways to teach to the “HOTS” is to guide your students to use the information rather than just remember it.  For instance, in my red wine class for beginners, I hope that my students will not just memorize the names of the red wines and the vocabulary words we discussed, but be able to use the information in some meaningful way, such as:

  • Describe what tannin is, and discuss how it adds to the overall character of a wine.
  • Discuss acidity in red wines and how it compares to acidity in white wine.
  • Describe a wine’s method of production and how it lead to some certain character of the wine…

What we are doing here is teaching critical thinking skills. Critical thinking can be traced in Western thought to the Socratic method of teaching used in Ancient Greece, and in the East, to the Buddhist Kalama Sutta. It is a part of the formal education process, increasingly significant as students progress through the higher grades, and should be the main concern in college and graduate-level teaching.  Obviously, critical thinking is an important part of just about every profession. 

According to Wikipedia, “There is debate among educators about its precise meaning and scope.”  Thank you, Wiki..very well said.  Crtical thinking is indeed one of those concepts, like “Politics” or “The Economy” that everyone understands but is hard pressed to actually define.  So here goes, my contribution to the debate…my definition of critical thinking:  The process of actively using new information by application, analysis, or evaluation. I tried to keep it simple.

Here is a list of my favorite techniques for adding critical thinking to the wine classroom:

  • Compare and contrast wines (or regions, or winemakers) by style.
  • Group wines into categories and explain why and how you chose the categories.
  • List wines in order (lightest to fullest, simplest to most complex).
  • Support an opinion with evidence. For instance, this wine is complex because…
  • Discuss whether or not a certain wine appeals to you, and tell us why/why not.
  • Describe a certain aspect of a wine (tannin, alcohol, residual sugar) and discuss how it relates to the other elements of flavor.
  • Predict how a wine will interact with a certain food.

And to make it easy, you can use what I call a “Bubbly Professor Brain Crank”.  I like to call this one “The Instant Critical Thinking Tool”: 

This wine is ____________  because ______________.

I like to use this sentence for class discussions, and it has a tendency to show up on my final exams.  I love it because it appears simple and un-intimidating, and yet you must use critical thinking to answer the question.  It’s also perfect for discussion because there are an infinite number of correct answers.  Students like that feature for test questions as well.

Here’s a sample…just how would you answer this question?

This Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 is ___________ because ________________.  

Made you think!  

 

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

Lessons in Teaching: Learned at TexSom

I am lucky enough to be attending the Texas Sommelier (“TexSom”) Conference this weekend at the lovely Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas, Texas.  Being an educator and not a sommelier, I know that I attend conferences of this sort in a much different mind set than the typical attendee, but there is a plenty of valuable information and experience to be gleaned by sitting in the audience and watching someone else teach.  As a matter of fact, it’s my favorite type of vacation; all you fellow teachers out there will relate to the feeling of relief you get when someone else is on the teaching “hot seat” and you can lean back and watch.

So, it is with much gratitude for the conference leaders and presenters that I share with you a few great teaching lessons learned and reinforced by the seminars I’ve seen at TexSom this year!

Lesson in Teaching:  Tell a Story!

The Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Good wine story!

The first session presented on Sunday, led by Wayne Belding and Brett Zimmerman, both Master Sommeliers, was all about Bordeaux.  The presenters led us through the story of the history of Bordeaux, all the way back to the middle ages and the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  This marriage made the French region of Aquitaine an English terriority, which opened the wines of the Bordeaux region to the English market and eventually to the world stage.

The name Aquitaine itself means “the place of much water” and describes not only the main rivers of the area but then-marshly lands around the Medoc. Another fasciniating part of the story of the history of Bordeaux takes place in the seventeenth century, when English demand for the wines of Bordeaux increased to the point that Dutch traders began to drain the marshlands around the  Medoc and increase the land available to vineyards. This caused the vineyard area in Bordeaux to expand so much that no one could really tell what area their wine was from, which in turned led to the first delination of the vineyards of Bordeaux.  This classification was completed in 1725, with the collection of districts being known as the Vignoble de Bordeaux.  At this time, individual bottles began to be labeled with with both the region and the specific area from which they originated.  I was fascinated to learn this ancient history of Bordeaux and happy to add some more “tales of the vine” to my arsenal of teaching tools.

Why is storytelling a good lesson in teaching?  It is a proven fact that the use of storytelling – called “the narrative approach” in teaching lingo – is one of the most effective ways to add interest and engagement to a presentation.  Storytelling works in just about any educational platform from lecture to discussion to on-line, and can help you reach your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.  A well-placed story can make theories or abstract ideas concrete and accessible, can spark interest in new material, and can help students memorize facts.

Lesson in Teaching:  Compare and Contrast 

Oregon Pinot: Did you prefer the Hippie or the Cowboy?

The last session I was able to attend on Sunday was all about Oregon Pinot Noir.  Presented by Fred Dame and Nate Ready, both Master Sommeliers, the session was subtitled “The Cowboy and The Hippie.”  Fred and Nate both presented some fabulously delicious Pinot Noirs, which would have made the session good enough, but what made the session even more interesting was the dichotomy in the way they both chose and presented their wines.  Fred represented the “Cowboy” approach and chose wines made in a “get ‘er done” style that produced a wine that was pure Pinot Noir – juicy, fruity, in some cases jammy – and showing lots of spice and floral aromas.  Nate represented the “Hippie” approach and chose wines that were done in a more “touch-feely” (some would say organic-biodynamic-light of the moon) style with lots of earthiness and subtlety.  The wines were presented two by two – with one wine is each set representing the hippie approach and one wine representing the cowboy style.  Presenting the wines this way enabled the audience to not just taste the wines but really think about them in terms of style; which by the way is the “language” most of our customers think in.

Interestingly enough, my favorite wine of the flight was the 2010 Penner-Ash “Dussin Vineyard” – pure Cowboy.

Why is “compare and contrast” a good lesson in teaching? One of the ultimate goals for any teacher is to guide his or her students to not just “know” (or worse yet, “memorize”) new information but to use that information in a meaningful context.  In this way we are teaching critical thinking skills and such teaching is considered a “higher level” teaching skill, as opposed to just teaching a page full of facts. One excellent technique to involve the use of critical thinking skills in a class is to have students compare and contrast items or ideas.  By ending the Oregon Pinot Noir sesion by asking the audience “which wines did you prefer, the cowboy or the hippie” the speakers were forcing us (in the nicest possible way) to use critical thinking.  

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas.

You’re a Wine Educator…How do I get your Job?

I get asked all the time…“How do I get your job”? Well, I really want to answer by saying something like, “Study for twenty years, write a book, learn instructional design…”  But I’ve long since learned that’s not the answer people are looking for.

And it’s a good question, and since so many of you asked, here’s my real answer:

  • Know your stuff.  Enough said.
  • Spend just as much time studying and mastering presentation techniques, public speaking skills, and audience management as you do studying wine.  As a matter of fact, spend more time studying them.  Knowledge is everywhere in our society…every student in your audience has all the information you are going to spill forth for them readily available on the little e-gadget they have in their pocket.  They don’t need you to provide them with information…they need you to provide them with a way to understand, remember, and be engaged with the information.
  • Develop your own style of teaching and work at perfecting it.  Don’t beg or borrow other people’s teaching materials…look inward and produce your own.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had other educators e-mail me asking if they can have my power point presentation.  My only thought is “Why would you want to use my materials”? Can you really speak from the heart using someone else’s presentation?  Trust me, you will do a much better job at presenting using materials that are your own.
  • Create opportunities to engage your class.  People who don’t undestand how to engage an audience think that it only has to do with energy or activity.  Points of engagement should be pre-planned, practiced, and executed at regular intervals in any class.
  • Develop a skill or gimmick for remembering and using people’s names.  Draw yourself a room diagram with people’s names on it, write short descriptors (for your eyes only) of individuals on your class list or roster, or have people wear name tags.  The sound of one’s own name is the most engaging thing known to humankind.  If you have a large group, make sure you know and use the names of everyone in the front row.
  • Become an expert at A/V.  If you are going to be using projectors or microphones, be able to hook them up, break them down, turn them on and trouble shoot.  Nothing will throw you off your game faster than having to leave your area to go find a techie.
  • Arrive at your location an hour early.  No excuses.  Get set up, find your wines, figure out who is going to be in your audience, relax, and be ready to greet everyone at the door as they enter.  Introduce yourself to every attendee (or at least the first 25 if you have a big group).  Make small talk with your students in the time you have before class begins, and by the time you start you’ve already made friends.
  • If you are going to use Power Point, Keynote, flip charts, or slides; study up on the latest research and advice concerning their use. One of the quickest ways I can detect an amateur is the use of wordy, detailed, or complicated visuals.  Same goes for handouts.
  • Don’t make excuses. If you are a good teacher, you can teach your subject with or without a projector, in a wine bar or in a lecture hall, with the exact wines you ordered or with the wines they delivered by mistake.
  • To get started; give one class for free at a wine bar, winery, or tasting society.  After that, you should be able to start to charge for classes.  If not, perhaps you need to practice some more.  Don’t go on too long giving it away…there are far too many “wanna be” wine educators out there who are willing to charge nothing for their services.  If you are providing a valuable service, you deserve to be paid.
  • If attendees are answering questions or describing wines, find what’s right in every contribution.  Steer them in the right direction if necessary, but keep in mind that no one should ever be embarrassed or belittled for speaking up in class. Appreciate everyone’s attempts to answer your question or participate in your class even if they are technically “not correct”.
  • Don’t get drunk in public.  Ever.  Especially not at your own events.  As a matter of fact, as long as you have the floor, the microphone, or the name on the marquee, you should only take a sip or two of any wine that you are presenting; that’s all you need. (Ok, after the class is over go ahead and have a glass of wine to unwind while chatting up your students.  But JUST ONE.  End of rant.)
  • Don’t quit your day job.  Very few people make a living teaching wine classes. However, there’s nothing wrong with working the floor of a retail wine shop, pouring wine  samples in a grocery store, or waiting tables to to make ends meet.  While working at a retail store might not be your dream job, a job at a retail store (or restaurant or grocery store) just might lead to many opportunities to teach if you are willing to “make it happen”.

And here’s my best advice:  Always keep growing.  Develop new teaching skills and new teaching materials constantly.  Appreciate the people, the surroundings, the wine, and the opportunity to share your passion.  Have fun, and if you can snag a full-time job with benefits that has anything to do with wine….take it.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas

Week One, Day One: The Introduction to Wine Class

Next week starts a brand new semester and among the classes I’ll be teaching this block is my sentimental favorite – The Introduction to Wine Class.  I offer Professional Wine Studies, Wines and the Culinary Arts, and Wine and Food Pairing as well as semester-long looks at both Old World Wines and New World Wines, but the introductory class remains my favorite.

It’s great to see wine newbies go from “What is Wine” to “The Legend of Sassicaia” in just over 12 weeks.  I always like to start Week One/Day One simply enough with “Wine, Defined.”  I am sure that every wine educator out there has their preferred version of the answer to the question, “what is wine”?   My is quite simply, “Wine is a beverage produced by the fermentation of fruit, mainly grapes”.  Of course this answer leads to many questions and further disucssions…what is fermentation, why grapes, and “can you make wine from Welch’s Grape Juice”?  Of course, the answer is yes…it just won’t taste very good!

And it never fails, within the first ten minutes of class someone will mention the following subjects:  Boone’s Farm, Four Loko, Sangria, Hellow Kitty Wines, Prison Wine, Mad Dog 20/20, Saké, Arbor Mist Blackberry Merlot, Thunderbird, Mimosas, Cristal, and Ace of Spades.  Fellow wine educators, I bet you have your own list, I would love to hear about what your students ask on day one!

And somehow, we get through it all.  I like to have a basic “learn how to taste” session on Week One/Day One as well, both to get the class off to an engaging start and also to lay the ground work for the more detailed, directed tastings we will have as the class progresses.

My introduction to sensory evaluation class is admittedly quite technical.  I tell the students what the wines are, but I ask them not to focus on that one particular wine but rather to use the wine at hand to learn about the sensory evaluation of  “every wine or any wine.” 

I use just three wines; an unoaked, crisp Chardonnay (A Macon-Villages is ideal), followed by a simple yet sweet white wine (I’ve been using Flat Creek Estate Muscato D’Arancia), and finish with Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The basics of sensory evaluation class that I teach on Week One/Day One does not follow the basic steps of wine tasting.  We will get to all the expected steps (sight, swirl, sniff, snort, whatever…) in the course of the session, but not exactly in that order.  I tell the students that we are going to do approach the wines in the proper order (dry before sweet, white before red, light before heavy) and that we will let each wine “reveal” its secrets to us – in other words, each wine has something special to teach us. I choose my flight of three to include a wine that perfectly shows acidity, one that has sweetness, one with bitterness and tannin, and make sure that within the set of three, each of the major aroma families is there in an easy-to-recognize manner.  I want the class to be chock-full of “a-ha moments.”

Then I launch right in, teaching what I call “The Nine Elements of Wine Flavor.”  The nine elements are: Acidity, Sweetness, Bitterness, Tannin, Umami, Aroma, Body, Balance, and Alcohol.  I told you it was technical!  It does start off quite scientific, with discussions of pH, IBU’s, R.S. and ABV, but by the time we add aroma to the mix I make sure the step off the path of “paralysis by analysis” and let the students just relax and enjoy the flavor of the wine.  And somehow, it all comes together in the end.

If you’d like a copy of my handout about “The Nine Elements of Wine Flavor” just send me an email request to”  missjane@prodigy.net .

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” of Austin, Texas.

Train the Trainer: The Power of Schema

Do you remember what it was like when you were trying to memorize the names of the different Champagne bottle sizes for your CSW exam?  You studied and studied, only to forget the terms by the next day.  Finally, you dreamed up a silly mnemonic device such as “Mary Jackson makes small boys nervous.”

Brilliant!!  Now you can remember M-J-M-S-B-N…in other words, the perfect sequence of:

  • Magnum
  • Jeroboam
  • Methuselah
  • Salmanazar
  • Balthazar
  • Nebuchadnezzer

Congratulations! What you did was trick your brain, and while it may have helped you pass your CSW exam, it did nothing to help you really know and understand the relevance of the different sizes of the bottles. In order to do that, you would really have to experience them.  I suggest buying one of each bottle size of your favorite Champagne, and on subsequent nights, consume the entire thing while both taking pictures and keeping an on-line journal of your thoughts. (What do you mean, that’s not practical?)  Never fear, there is an easier way.

As the Bubbly Professor, I am not here to criticize your study habits, but I am interested in just why it is so much easier to remember a sentence than it is to memorize a string of seemingly unconnected data, and how we might use such information to make our teaching and learning more effective.

It boils down to one word:  Schema.  Schema is a powerful learning concept which has been discussed in the context of educational psychology since Dr. Frederic Bartlett coined the term in the 1800’s – although if you study the educational practices of the Ancient Greeks you can clearly see that they were wise to it as well.

Schema is one of the factors of the educational process that can determine – in the first few seconds of learning – whether or not something that is being perceived will actually be remembered, and more importantly, understood.  A schema is a type of mental framework – a way of organizing thoughts around some aspect of the world. Schema involves prior knowledge, the structure of that knowledge, and the way we fit new knowledge into our “world.” 

Simply put, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context. One of the best methods for getting students to remember details is to tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details – in other words, introduce a schema.  

According to research, (thank you, Dr. R.C. Anderson),  triggering a schema around a moment of learning can increase retention and comprehension of the salient details by between 50 and 100%.

So, how do we harness this knowledge and turn it into teaching power? 

Here are three tips:

Teach meaning before details.

As we have experienced, the brain is just not wired to remember random words, numbers, or details out of context.  To help your students remember details,   tell them the meaning, context, or conclusion of the material before you present the details.

In 2005, I did a little classroom experiment in my “Wines of France” class concerning the “facts and figures” of Beaujolais. Over the course of a year, 500 students were taught the details of the wine before the historical story of the wine, and another group of 500 were taught the story before the details.  In other words, the second group of 500 was provided with a schema. 

The results:  students who were taught the details of the wine before the telling of the story got a total of 68% of the questions on a pop quiz given the following day correct.  The students who were told the story before being told the details of the wine got a total of 91% of the answers correct.  While both figures could demonstrate the effectiveness of narrative as a teaching device, the students who were taught the meaning before the details did significantly better.

Use the power of three.

One of the easiest ways to set up a schema is to use pattern recognition using the “power of three.”  Three is the minimum number of items the brain needs to see before it recognizes a pattern,in other words, invokes a schema.  In addition, three details or “chunks” of information sit well within the limits of working memory.

It’s easy to think of dozens of examples of this concept in use in popular culture, literature, and oration.  For example:

  • Lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape
  • Location, Location, Location
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen…
  • Three bears, three wishes, three graces.  Now you know why there are three!

A great tip to put this power to use is to start a session off with the statement: “Today, I want you to remember three things.”  Everyone can remember three things, it doesn’t sound too hard.  Then, it’s your job to “chunk” all your “facts and figures” into three meaningful chunks – now known as “schemata.” 

DIY Schema

Since prior knowledge is essential for the comprehension of new information, teachers either need to help students build the prerequisite knowledge, or remind them of what they already know before introducing new material. 

You might have to get creative with this, but with the subject of food and wine it is often possible to find references to our subject matter in pop culture, movies, television, and even songs. 

Another great teaching tip is to create your own set of schema by purposely “injecting” your classes or sessions with references to future material.  It takes some deliberate effort, but your students will appreciate your efforts – whether they are aware of them or not!