Teaching is not telling

I was talking to a parent on the phone the other day who wanted to take her child on a holiday during school time and wanted us to send home the work her daughter would miss.  I was explaining how we could send home some things but that a lot of the work we do at school can’t be “sent home”.  I got the distinct impression that she truly believed we had big boxes labeled “Grade Seven Math” or “Grade 3 Language Arts” and we could just pull out the missed assignments and all would be good.

Of course teaching is much more complex than that.  If we had boxes like that it would just be “telling” the students what to do.  So what is the difference between teaching and telling?

  • Teaching is modeling. A baby learns to talk by modeling what he hears over and over again.  No one ever said, “Now baby, this is what talking is. Start.”  Students figure out how to write by watching their teacher write as he thinks aloud.  Students learn to connect to text by hearing their teacher do the same.  Students learn multiple strategies for mathematics by seeing how someone else has solved the problem.  Students learn how to play melodically by hearing the music played that way.
  • Teaching is scaffolding so that students come to an understanding of what to do gradually. So often when a task doesn’t go well, it is because the student was not clear about what to do.  The scope of the task was too big and there was too much information at once.  We need to break down tasks and show students what to do in bits and pieces.
  • Teaching is patience. Because, as teachers, we already see the whole, it is hard to remember what it was like to not know. It takes a long time to get good at something.  So, we can’t just “tell” students how to do something; we need to give them many, many opportunities to gradually strengthen their skills.
  • Teaching is giving feedback. Or perhaps it is better to say that learning is getting feedback.  And the feedback can’t just be telling either.  As teachers we give feedback that is so specific and so individualized that you get that “aha” moment from the student who has now moved further along in his or her understanding.  If feedback were “telling” we could just reiterate the original instruction.  Feedback is specific and pinpoints the very next step.
  • Teaching is knowing the content and the pedagogy. If teaching were telling anyone could do it.  But good teaching requires the teacher to know the subject matter so intimately that he or she can predict or determine where a student is struggling.  In speaking with a history teacher this week, she said that her struggling students could not imagine life in the past.  She understood that the study of history was more than just facts; it was the study of another time and way of life and her students just couldn’t imagine that.  And she had a plan to help them.

So, I sent home some textbook pages and worksheets to make the parent feel less guilty about taking her child out of school, even though I told her that the family trip to India was educational enough.  But I knew that the real learning on this family trip was not going to be the worksheets I’d given, but the interaction the child would have with her family in learning about a different culture.

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