Open with a Promise, Close with a Joke

Informal portrait photo of smiling Patrick Winston, standing in an office.

Patrick Winston, Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science. (Photograph by Azeddine Tahiri. Used with permission.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Manager

Open with a promise, close with a joke. And in between? Be inspiring!

Such are the guidelines that Professor Patrick Henry Winston follows in giving his lectures for 6.034 Artificial Intelligence. The course has something akin to legendary status at MIT and beyond (Bloomberg Business recently tagged it as “one of the 5 best computer science classes in the U.S.“). As Professor Winston says in one of his Instructor Insights, he tries to live up to the billing:

When you have more than 30 or so students in a room, you no longer have a class, you have a lecture. When you have upwards of 100 students, you have theater. It’s a kind of social covenant. When people see that there are a lot of people sitting there with them, there’s an expectation that they’re going to see a show…So the lecture ends up being a kind of performance.

Accordingly, he invests between 12 and 18 hours designing each lecture, and prep time can extend up to a week if he has to write software. Then, there’s the 90-minute rehearsal.

Rocking Out When Walking In

To set the mood and “get the adrenaline pumping” before the show, he plays rock music as the students enter the lecture hall.

He begins with “a promise of how students will be empowered by what they will learn in the lecture” and includes many demonstrations showing what kinds of intelligent things well-written code can do.

Inspiring with Plenty of Stories

Professor Winston emphasizes the importance of expressing passion for the subject material. He polled faculty and students a few years ago and discovered that they all agreed that the best way to inspire others is to show passion about what you are teaching:

In my own teaching, when I give a demonstration, I frequently tell students I think it’s “really cool,” as a way to be explicit about the fact that I’m passionate about it.

Naturally, his research in artificial intelligence has led him to study human intelligence, and this in turn has helped inform his lectures:

I concluded some time ago that the distinguishing characteristic of human intelligence is our story competence. We tell stories, we listen to stories, and we make up new stories by blending old ones together. That’s really what education is all about, if you think about it…I think sharing the stories, the opinions, the asides, and understanding how a person solved a particular problem, what they were thinking of when they did that, what they were motivated by, etc. is just as, and probably more, important than teaching the actual skills.

Watch the master storyteller in action, introducing the topic of articificial intelligence in a clip from the first class lecture:

Screengrab of professor with student at front of classroom, holding a bicycle wheel.

Learning With Pen in Hand

Ironically, Professor Winston’s understanding of how the mind works has led him to ban laptop and cell-phone use in his computer science class:

The reason I do this is because there’s a lot of evidence that we only have one language processor in our heads, and it’s easily jammed. If you jam it by reading your email, texting, or doing something else, you’re not actually going to be able to pay attention to what’s going on in the lecture.

Instead, he recommends old-fashioned note-taking by hand:

I encourage my students to take notes because it forces engagement. You can’t take a note without deploying your language apparatus and your drawing apparatus. And that’s the reason for taking notes. It has nothing really to do with looking at the notes again; it has everything to do with forcing concentration.

Laughing When All Is Said and Done

And he always ends the lecture with “something fun”:  a joke, or an historical anecdote, or an intriguing demo.

That’s because people tend to characterize an experience by its last event:

One of my colleagues told me that he always ends his lectures with something fun so that people feel like they’ve enjoyed the class the whole time.

Nothing artificial about that!

** ** **

[This is the 1st of two recent posts on 6.034 Artifical Intelligence. The second post is about the student-centered teaching approach of TAs Jessica Noss and Dylan Holmes.]

One thought on “Open with a Promise, Close with a Joke

  1. Pingback: A Student-Centered Ethic | Open Matters

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