George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Free Advice: Learning from Others Simply by Listening

September 9, 2008

I had a lesson recently on both the importance of listening to others and how to effectively give advice. Have you received advice that you initially thought you should ignore, but then decided to follow it and were glad you did? Here's what happened to me. Let me know what happened to you.

A few weeks back, I was in Tennessee to work with teachers on the use of technology to differentiate instruction. As always, being an avid amateur geologist, I asked the teachers I was working with where one might go to look for interesting rocks. Knowing there was a lot of limestone in the area, and that limestone means fossils, I wasn't surprised when a fellow told me of a local town park by a river where I might find some interesting pieces.

After the final session of the day, I went back to the hotel, changed into outdoors clothes, and headed for the park. Walking along the river's bank and stopping to look at piles of rocks that had been washed downstream, I found a lot of limestone, but no fossils. Because limestone, unless disrupted, occurs in horizontal layers, it seemed to me this river was working along a layer that was pretty much devoid of fossils. Preparing to head back to my car, I was satisfied to have had an interesting walk and to not have seen any of the snakes that can hang out along overgrown waterways in the South.

I made one last stop by a small boat ramp where folks can put canoes or kayaks in, and I bent down to look at the rocks along the shore. An older woman, wearing large, dark glasses, was sitting on the boat ramp with a small dog. She asked me if I had lost something. I said no and explained that I was looking for fossils, and then we got to talking. It turns out she is a retired teacher who had spent years working in U.S. Department of Defense schools in Okinawa, Japan. She introduced me to her dog, Precious, and told me that I ought to forget about fossils and continue down along the river a piece because the site of the Battle of Stones River was just around a curve or two. I was tempted to politely thank her for the suggestion and head for dinner, but instead, I gave up on my search for fossils and decided to visit the battlefield.

The area was fascinating -- quiet and empty except for me -- and I could only imagine the sounds, sights, and smells of that day in early January 1863 when it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War to be fought in Tennessee. I stood silent for a time before heading back along the path and then along the river.

Almost back to my car, I glanced down toward the river one last time and noticed an area that had obviously been recently flooded. I saw scattered rocks, and I decided to take one last look. And that is where I found, right on the surface, a fossilized bison tooth -- a tooth from Bison antiques, to be specific, which my reading tells me lived in Tennessee during the Pleistocene era, some 130,00 to 150,000 years ago.

What a wonderful result from a chance conversation with a total stranger! Her advice was so open: "You ought to go see this." She made no demand. There had been no insistence. It was just a suggestion.

So, how about you? Who has given you advice that made a difference in your teaching, and how was it given? And how do you go about giving advice to your students so that they may be willing to follow it? Please share. (But only if you want to.)

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