New Years’ Resolutions: Teacher’s Edition

teachOne of my goals this year was to read The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Milton Gregory (If nothing else, that name of his was alluring!)

I was skeptical when I opened the book and discovered it was published in the mid 1800s and written in part to Sunday School teachers. But this is an excellent book.

My purpose in this post is not to do a full review of the book, simply to highlight a few valuable takeaways. Essentially, I’m recording my ideas here so that in the fall, when I return to teaching, I remember what I learned, and apply it.

Lesson #1: Teach the new skill or idea first, then the words to describe that skill.  

When I teach students to add quotations to their writing, I start by introducing the term “quote sandwich.” When I teach students to read poetry, I start by defining “close reading” for them. Frequently, they get a little freaked out by these unfamiliar terms; they may insist they don’t do poetry, or that they’re not naturally good writers.

Reading Gregory’s book reminded me that when students are first learning something, they learn best when the subject builds on familiar knowledge and is described using familiar vocabulary. “Ideas,” writes Gregory, “must precede words in all but parrot speech”.

Essentially, I see it this way. The stuff I’m trying to teach students is in a box, and on that box there is a label, something like “quote sandwich” or “close reading” or “A-Ha! Moment”. If I teach students the word on the label, all they have is superficial knowledge; they know what’s on the box, but not what’s in it. Knowing that a specific style of shoes is called Manolo Blahnik is meaningless if you’ve never worn a pair of shoes in your life.

But if we take the stuff out of the box, handle it it, play with it, try different things with it, and only at the end affix a label to it, then students understand both how to use the stuff in the box and the term for it.

So here’s my goal for next year: I’m going to stress vocabulary less, skill more; I don’t care if students know the terminology (much of which I make up myself anyway) if they can demonstrate the principles I’m teaching them. When I do want them to know the vocabulary, as much as possible I will try to introduce the vocabulary after the skill – for instance, assigning reading about quote sandwiches only after practicing quote sandwiches (without using that term) in class. When I absolutely have to introduce vocabulary before the concept, I will not only teach the term before we practice the new skill, but afterwards too, so that if the term did not make sense in advance of the lesson, it may be clearer after the lesson.

Lesson #2: Get students talking about and working with the material we learn in class. 

On a related note, Gregory also stresses that if students are to really understand course content, they have to get beyond “parrot speech” and clearly put the new concepts and skills they’re learning into their own words.

A few things. One, this rests on Gregory’s assumption that learning is not transferring data from the teacher’s brain into the student’s, like moving gold nuggets from one prospector’s pan into the next. Rather, learning is about the teacher enabling the student to recreate an experience, to apprehend how what she is learning connects with prior knowledge and applies practically.

Given this, how elegantly and vividly the teacher can explain the lesson is not as important as whether the students have a chance to explain and practice the lesson themselves. If ideas really do come before words, at some point students need the chance to put the ideas and skills they are learning in their own words, and they need to be guided towards the most accurate words.

Since reading Bruce Wilkinson’s book The Seven Laws of the Learner, I’ve taken responsibility for guaranteeing that my students learn, but in general, that means I’ve made a good effort to make my lessons rich in visuals and examples, and to meet personally with students to help them apply what they learn. Now, I’m going to put less work into thinking up visually rich lessons and creating beautiful Power Points, and more work into asking good questions that get students talking about what they learn. I’m going to keep reviewing terminology with students, but instead of just asking (say, for example) to define symbol, I’ll ask them how they know that the birthmark in Hawthorne’s story is in fact a symbol, which gets at not only the vocabulary but (more importantly) the experience and skill behind the words. I want my students not only to parrot back definitions; I want them to explain what they are doing, the experience they are having.

Two, later in the book, Gregory stresses that since learning is about recreating an experience rather than rehashing a lesson, students must be stimulated to independent thinking and independent work on the subject if they are to really learn. Gregory rejects “the notion that [the teacher] can make his pupils intelligent by hard work upon their passive receptivity.” Instead, he suggests that teachers should spent their time “assisting the mind to shape and put forth its own conceptions” of the topic. In my writing classes especially, I have noticed that thoughtful papers depend on students taking time to mull their topic over, and so I’ve urged them to do so.

But in general, I’ve expected that mulling to happen out of class, while we use class time to discuss general writing principles. I see now that I have been trying to make my students good writers by “hard work upon their passive receptivity”: If I just explain the general writing principle clearly enough, and if students are diligent enough to think about their topic out of class, they will become good writers. This is not true. In the future, I am going to give students time in class to actively think about their topic, to practice and discuss and apply the specific writing skills we learn.

Lesson #3: The teacher should make sure she is studied up for the lesson. 

This was a good reminder for me. I confess, when the grading piles up mid-semester and my day is chock full of meetings with students and meeting with colleagues, it’s easy to convince myself that I don’t need to do the same reading I assign to students, because I’ve read it before. I don’t need to brush up on the methods used to create an outline, because I’ve done created so many outlines before. Surely I can wing it in class.

Not so, says Gregory. “Imperfect knowing,” he warns, “will be reflected in imperfect teaching.” Unless we really know what we’re teaching, we lack the ability to correct students’ misunderstandings, to ask guiding questions, to provide clear examples, and to explain the topic in a way that will hep students learn.

The truth is, I probably will skimp on preparation in the future. My time is not an inexhaustible resource (literally, I turn into a pumpkin after 10.00 PM), and some things are more important than being fully knowledgeable about what I’m teaching. But I am also going to hold myself to a high expectation of knowing as much as is reasonably possible about what I’m teaching, and refreshing my memory frequently.

Concluding Thoughts: 

There were, of course, other takeaways from this book.

I was reminded not to use vocabulary or examples that my students were unfamiliar with.

I was reminded of the importance of reviewing, and reviewing not only little bits & pieces of what we learned but the whole topic together, making sure students can see the big picture.

I was reminded to check what my students already know about the topic before starting the lesson, so that we can build on previous knowledge.

I was reminded to be thorough, going fast enough to keep up enthusiasm for learning new things but slowly enough to make sure students can explain the new concepts and skills they are learning.

But I’m going to end with only the three big takeaways from above. When you make life changes, you’re generally urged to make only one or two at a time, lest you get overwhelmed; changing everything all at once is rarely a good idea. The same is true for teaching. Can I improve in many ways as a teacher? Sure. But I’m not going to improve in every area all at once. For next year, my goals are more modest: Put new ideas before new vocabulary, experience and thought before data, and student talk before teacher talk.

We’ll see how it goes!



One thought on “New Years’ Resolutions: Teacher’s Edition

  1. Pingback: A Word on Tone | Meditations & Miscellany

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