The Truth About Teaching and LearningJuly 29, 2009 | Ben Johnson
I would like to do an interesting visual exercise with you. I'd like you to imagine that on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, I draw a horizontal line all the way across the board. Then, on each end of the horizontal line, I draw a vertical one.
I scratch on top of the board the word continuum, pronouncing each syllable of the word as I go. On the left side of the word, I write "teacher directed," and on the right side, I put "student directed." I turn around and face you, and ask the question, "Where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" I then hand you the chalk. Let's say I did that with all of you now.
Into the Lesson
Afterward, I look at the board and ask why all the x's are in different places. You all respond in chorus, "Because we are all different!" You politely do not add the "Duh!" that you are all thinking.
Now, I take my piece of chalk (which is getting short because of all the x's), and I quickly create multiple continuums labeled from one end to the other: "efficient and effective," "quick and time consuming," "auditory and kinesthetic," "passive and active," "easy and hard," and "order and chaos."
As the chalk dust settles, I turn around and ask you the same question, "For each pair, where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" Instead of giving you the chalk, I direct you to create the continuums -- let's dream a bit here -- on your laptops and tell you to place the x on each as accurately and honestly as you can.
After a minute, you all hit the Send button on your laptops. In seconds, my computer has tabulated all the results, and I display those on an interactive whiteboard (more dreaming).
Through the Lesson
Imagine what that display looks like. I ask, "What do we see that jumps out at us?" One of you raises your hand. Rather than take the proffered answer, I respond, "Please talk with your partner and come up with two answers. You have 3.25 minutes."
The anticipation builds. You wonder exactly what answer I am looking for, and this goes through all your minds as you discuss with your partners. "What answers do you have for me?" Each partnership gives their analysis of why one side of the continuum has more x's than the other. All good stuff, mind you, but obviously not what I wanted.
With a smug look on my face, I go to the interactive whiteboard. Using my finger, I draw a fat red line around the ends of each continuum. I ask, "Did you notice that there are no x's on the ends?" You all "Ooh" and "Ahh" in unison as the lights go on in your brains. All right, you can stop imagining now. What? You'd like me to go on?
All right, let's keep our imagination hats on. "As you demonstrated earlier," I say, pacing back and forth in the front of the room, "we wouldn't expect each person to place their x in the same place, because we are all different. And, as you pointed out, there are more x's on one side than on the other because of various teaching truths that we are expected to follow."
"So, why aren't there any x's on the ends?" I raise my finger in the air and press on without waiting for an answer. "The truth about teaching and learning is that there are no absolutes. This data shows that teaching and learning are not about absolutes, nor are they about minimums or maximums." I touch the interactive whiteboard with my finger, leaving red dots as I emphasize the words. "They are about what lies between the ends of the continuums."
I circle the insides of the continuum areas. "They are about thresholds, plateaus, valleys, and peaks." I change the color to blue and draw dotted lines, horizontal lines, and jagged lines (prompting more "Oohs" and "Ahhs").
OK, now we really have to quit imagining, or we will get into the interactive part of the lesson and, of course, the evaluation.
I'll just summarize the conclusion of the lesson for you. If teaching were an exact science, it would be a simple matter of finding the right formula and applying it. The truths about teaching and learning are that one size never fits all, and surefire works only some of the time.
Public school educators are starting to understand -- I mean really starting to understand -- that we have to blend chaos with order, easy with hard, and student directed with teacher directed in order to teach within the confines of standardized tests, limited time, and, certainly, limited resources.
Each teacher is different, and some teachers can get away with things that other teachers couldn't pull off in a million years. Both can be extremely effective. What is the common denominator? It is individualized, unique, blood-sweat-or-tears problem solving! Each successful teacher has to bring it down to the question "How can I help Myesha learn?" It is that simple.
So, what is the truth about teaching and learning? We don't know for sure. We just try our best, and that seems to work. I'd be interested in reading about what other truths you know about teaching and learning.