As a professor, Randy believes in the importance of teaching and learning. For him, one of the most effective ways of teaching is by putting in place feedback loops, which are mechanisms by which lessons can amplify and perpetuate themselves beyond the scope of Randy’s literal teaching.
Randy gives a number of examples of feedback loops in his life and what he learned from them. Perhaps the most striking is from his time at Brown, when his mentor, Professor Andy Van Dam, told Randy that it’s a shame that people perceive Randy as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what he’s able to accomplish. Randy was shocked and hurt by this information, but he didn’t hide from it or dismiss it: he changed his behavior and people began to perceive him differently. In each instance of feedback loops in The Last Lecture, Randy describes a mentor providing honest feedback, which leads to behavioral change, and then to the recipient of the feedback re-gifting the lesson to others who need it.
This last point is essential to the concept of the feedback loop: feedback is not simply a “loop” between teacher and student—a successful feedback loop must create an infinite loop that travels beyond the original teacher/student relationship. For instance, Randy tells a story about a time when his sister lectured her kids about not messing up Randy’s new convertible before he took them out for a ride. In order to teach his niece and nephew that people are more valuable than things, Randy poured a can of coke right onto the new seats. When Randy’s nephew later threw up on the seat, he didn’t feel guilty about it. The story is humorous, of course, but Randy extends it: when he finds out he’s dying, Randy asks his niece and nephew to make sure they impart this same lesson to his own children. Those who receive feedback become those who give feedback, and so that feedback can progress, improve, and become more refined through time. If done properly, the cycle of teaching and learning never ends, and each generation keeps improving upon the last.
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops ThemeTracker
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Quotes in The Last Lecture
…all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child… despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with passion, I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
…even though I did not reach the National Football League, I sometimes think I got more from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, than I did from many of the ones I did accomplish.
“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”
The second kind of head fake is the really important one—the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process. If you’re a head-fake specialist, your hidden objective is to get them to learn something you want them to learn.
…I had strengths that also were flaws. In Andy’s view, I was self-possessed to a fault, I was way too brash and I was an inflexible contrarian, always spouting opinions. One day, Andy took me for a walk. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.
…educators best serve students by helping them be more self-reflective. The only way any of us can improve—as Coach Graham taught me—is if we develop a real ability to assess ourselves.
“It does take a lot of luck,” he said. “But all of you are already lucky. Getting to work with Randy and learn from him, that’s some kind of luck right there. I wouldn’t be here if not for Randy.”
…if it is presented as a storytelling activity, girls become perfectly willing to learn how to write software. In fact, they love it… Everybody loves telling stories. It’s one of the truly universal things about our species. So in my mind, Caitlin wins the All-Time Best Head-Fake Award.
I made a comment to my dad about the job being beneath those teachers. (I guess I was implying that the job was beneath me, too.) My dad gave me the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. He believed manual labor was beneath no one. He said he’d prefer that I worked hard and became the best ditch-digger in the world rather than coasting along as a self-impressed elitist behind a desk.