Monday, March 9, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons #8: The Elements of Teaching

This week's entry comes from Matt, who teaches upper level math at an independent school in Massachusetts. His advice comes in the form of a book recommendation:

Buy Banner & Cannon's book The Elements of Teaching, and read it at least once a year.

To some they may seem a little "old-school" and/or idealistic, but the book is absolutely chock full of wisdom-nuggets. Some of my favorites:
... A teacher's confidence in the intrinsic worth of knowledge is fundamental to all instruction. Such deep-rooted belief makes a teacher able to relate knowledge to life, to all human experience. To students' typical questions, "Why do we have to learn this? What good is such knowledge?" the typical instrumental answers come to mind easily: "Because it's required by the school board." "Because you will do better on your licensing exam." "Because you'll need it later when you study economics." But the teacher with deep learning answers with conviction and authority more pertinently: "Because acquiring this knowledge is difficult. Because you will feel triumphant when it no longer confuses you. Because you will enjoy what you can do with it. Because in learning it you may discover new perspectives on life, new ways of thinking. Because its possession will make you more alive than its alternative, which is ignorance."

... A teacher can also gain authority by denying it—that is, by acknowledging ignorance... by confessing ignorance, a teacher creates an opportunity to explore a subject further, to reach for or ask a student to reach for a book that will provide the answer, to discuss with students how the answer might be found, or to design an assignment by which students singly or collectively can try to find out. Thus "I don't know" becomes "Let's look it up" (a lesson in research) or "Let's find out together" (a lesson in experiment and cooperation). In these ways, knowledge has a chance to emerge from ignorance, truth from error, method from confusion, and understanding
from puzzlement.

... The confusion of compassion with charity is one of the principal misunderstandings of contemporary teaching. Teachers show regard for their students by setting high, though always reasonable, standards, by holding students responsible for meeting them, and then by exhibiting compassion toward them as they struggle to meet those standards. Making the work easier for students by adjusting their expectations downward is not compassion but negligent condescension. A compassionate regard for students requires setting appropriately high standards in the students' own interest. It is only by challenging students that a teacher reveals true compassion—a determination to relieve them of the ignorance that exacts severe penalties from both students and society together. To become known by students as "tough, but fair" is one of the crowning achievements of teaching.
Read more about this project here or add the 52 teachers 52 lessons tag to your favorites. Email your entries to teachforeverATgmailDOTcom. Week 9 will be posted next Monday, March 16th.