At the opening of Donald Finkel’s marvelous Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, he asks his readers to stop reading and take a simple test. Simply put the book down, he suggests, and spend a few minutes describing in writing the most significant learning experiences you ever had. When you are done, return to the book and answer a few questions about these experiences.
When I took this test, my mind immediately went to a couple of books that have had a significant impact on my thinking. Reading them had been an intellectual adventure. So I described myself stretched out on my couch one summer in my tiny apartment and so absorbed by all the new ideas that I did not realize the afternoon had slid into early evening.
Then I went back to Finkel’s book to answer his questions, among which were the following: Did the learning experience take place in a classroom? Did it take place in a school? Was a professional teacher involved in making it happen?
For most people, Finkel notes, the answer to all of these questions will be no. This was certainly the case for me. All of my most profound learning experiences happened in private encounters with books. There was nary a teacher in sight. Indeed, with the single exception of learning how to write a check in a fifth grade consumer math course, I can think of very few things that can be walked back to an actual moment of instruction. Obviously teachers have taught me many things, but none of these countless bits of information strikes me as a significant learning experience. They don’t even make the top 100 learning experiences in my life. I simply can’t recall ever having them taught to me.
It was startling for me to realize this, especially as someone who teaches for a living. But Finkel doesn’t use this test to belittle the work of teachers. Rather, he wants to refocus our assumptions about what teachers actually do. We assume they teach us by telling us things, but being told things is perhaps the least effective way of learning anything. I know this. Hell, it’s the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy. My job is not telling students things. It’s engineering the circumstances for learning to occur.
I know this. I preach this.
Even so, you would be amazed at how often I have to re-learn it. I often fall back into the error of leading classes with “telling-heavy” moments. In fact I just hit one of those patches in a couple of my courses over the last two days, and now I’m kicking myself for again doing too much yakking and not enough shutting up. I've been feeling rotten about this run of bad teaching and remonstrating myself for never getting it right.
And once again I realize--for the freakin' 100th time--that the lessons we teach are the ones we most need to learn.
This job. Sigh. Time to be quiet now.