Million-Dollar Professor

I wish I could have watched William Kilpatrick teach. In the early 1900’s he was known as the Million- Dollar Professor—not because he earned a million dollars, but because the coffers of Columbia University grew from tuition for his courses.

Kilpatrick’s math classes at Columbia’s Teachers’ College often swelled to more than 600 students. But when he taught, his students were known to say, they each felt like the only student in the room.

So they kept signing up in droves. Kilpatrick would stand there in front of them with his full mane of white hair, piercing blue eyes, slight build, and oversized personality and draw each of them personally into the world of math.

How did Kilpatrick shrink the room? How, in such a crowd, did he create intimate relationships with students? Here’s how you can teach like Kilpatrick:

  • Teach students, not content. You need to know the contexts of your students’ lives, Kilpatrick believed. If you can’t connect your lecture notes to their contexts, students won’t learn. What does your content have to do with their lives? This is the question to ask again and again.
  • Get students talking. Why do we pay more attention in a conversation than during a lecture? Because we know it will soon be our turn to talk. Kilpatrick capitalized on this. Students listened to him because at any minute, Kilpatrick would hand the conversation to them. Even in his huge classes, he used small group discussion. He valued their words.
  • Keep students busy. Kilpatrick guided his students through projects because he believed that learning is doing. He presented real-life problems for students to solve. Students listened to Kilpatrick because he was always about to call them to action.

Kilpatrick didn’t want to retire when he got caught with Columbia’s mandatory retirement age. After all, he knew he still had what it took to teach a good class. And he was right. His last class in 1937 was full—622 students.

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