Friday, December 18, 2009

Superficial teaching, Real teaching, and Inspired teaching

Superficial teaching can sound good, but it's really by the numbers.  In The Anatomy of Change (page 121) Aikido teacher Richard Strozzi-Heckler writes:
Learning to ski last winter, I took a lesson from an accomplished skier and certified instructor.   He initially amazed me, as his instructions were very similar to the ones I use with my students.  He spoke of the importance of relaxation, going with the contours of the slopes, and trusting my body to feel weight, balance, and flexibility.  His images were creative and useful.  I  was inspired and immediately put to use what he was telling me.  But after a point, I got stuck.  The instructor came over, reeled off the terrific aphorisms, and I again tried to put them to use.  But there was no use.  Something was missing.

I realized that he wasn't making contact with me. He wasn't seeing me and what I needed to learn in order to move ahead. His wonderful information lacked a connecting bridge to the more essential part of me. ... Perhaps if he had tuned in, he might have brought forth the suffestion to turn my hip a little this way, or lean slightly that way, or even work with the energy of my emerging frustration.
Real teaching means more than passing on good information -- take it or leave it.  It also involves the contact that Heckler complains was missing from his skiing lesson, including observation and trouble-shooting, and establishing and maintaining a positive learning environment.

Much of the time I demonstrate with commentary, thereby passing on good information in visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (for my uke) forms, thereby catering to a variety of learning styles.  This is still superficial, but given good curriculum and personal technique, this transmission of "good information" is the foundation of effective instruction.

Next, I let the students get to work in pairs and try to leave them alone while they figure out the technique (or refine it) by themselves.  Part of good teaching is getting outta da way and giving the students space to figure stuff out for themselves.

Occasionally I'll intervene, or answer a question.  This is where the observation comes in,.  The student  starts to describe the problem.  "Show me your throw", I say.  I want to  see it in its totality, not hear what they think the problem is.  "Again", I say, so that I can get more data.  Sometimes I'll have them throw a different uke, perhaps with a different type of body.  If I can't identify the source yet I'll have them throw me, so that I can better feel what's going on.  Then I try to give one (sometimes two) succinct instructions, and apply the technique to the person so that they can feel how I do it, and/or to their partner so that they can see it.  I may also imitate what I want them to change.  With more advanced students, I might explain the cause of the problem and ask them to work out the solution.  In my book this is where much of the real teaching happens.

If I see that a problem is widespread, I'll make a particular point for the whole class.  If the problem is affecting every (or nearly every)  student in the class, it's time for me to have a good hard look at the likely source of the problem.  This usually involves a mirror, real or metaphorical.

Inspired teaching, by contrast goes above and beyond.  Sometimes it's when a new activity, or instruction clicks for a whole bunch of students at once.  On an individual basis, it can happen when the problems of the student seem intractable, the way to help uncertain, the likelihood of success low, all attempts at correction thus far have met with abject failure, and yet in a flash of insight the teacher realizes that there's something else that might just work.

Here is Brian's story about his experience tutoring Ali, a boy who was making no progress while attempting to learn mathematics, either at school and under the uber-systematic, yet non-directive Kumon method:
[T]here was one boy for whom Kumon did not seem to be working its magic. Ali was the boy's name, and he seemed to be in such serious trouble that Kumon seemed beside the point. When he did sums they were all over the place. Answers were totally wrong, and figures written the wrong way round. He could hold a pencil and write, but what he wrote was crazy. We seriously doubted if there was anything we could do, and we were ready to give up right there. He would make repeated mistakes, both of calculation and in the way he wrote numbers, and we even started to believe that he might be "dyslexic", or even brain damaged. Also, Ali seemed to be an extremely arrogant little boy. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and raising his head that made him look as if he thought the world to be populated entirely by fools.

At which point I got very, very lucky. I said, let me have a try with him. I decided to do some teaching.

I separated the task he faced into a succession of tiny steps and got him to do each step right before proceeding to the next. You start by writing your name there. No, there. What's your name? Ali. Good. Can you spell that? Good. Please write Ali there. Good. Now: what does this say? I point at a two. Two. Good. And what does that say? I point at a one. One. Good. What about that? I point at the plus in between the two and the one. No? That says plus. That means you are adding two to one. What does this say? Don't know? That says equals. That means what does two and one come to. What's it the same as? What is two plus one, two and one, two added to one? So. What's two and one? Don't know? It's three. Do you know how to write three? You do. Good. Please write three there, which is where the answer is supposed to go. Excellent.

And so on. I never made him guess more than once, and I was unfailingly polite. I always said please before asking him to do anything, and I never raised my voice. I never, that is to say, confused Ali being ignorant with Ali being stupid. I did nothing that would be unfamiliar to an averagely capable aerobics instructor working with a arthritic old-age pensioner, but for some reason this sort of thing, when needed by a child, is not always supplied, even in something as widely known as simple arithmetic.

Aside from not knowing the answers, Ali's biggest problem was writing the numbers the correct way around. He would routinely write mirror reflections of them instead. Not all the time, just rather a lot. (This was what had prompted the dyslexia diagnosis.)

When Ali did this - getting, say, the answer right but writing it mirrored - I would say well done, you got the answer right. The answer is five, and that's what you wrote. Well done. However, you wrote the five the wrong way round. Please rub out the five you did, and rewrite it the correct way round. Good.

As I say, you aren't supposed to do this in Kumon. If all the children were to get twenty minutes of solid attention, the way I was attending to Ali, the place would have stopped being the learning factory for everyboy and everygirl that it's supposed to be and would have reverted to being a few tutors helping a few rich kids. But I didn't care.

And the reason that I didn't care was that it worked. After about three sessions along these lines, Ali reached his personal plateau of arithmetical excellence (a few sums wrong but almost all of them right), just like any other Kumon kid.
So there you have it, a real-life an example of inspired, outside-the-box teaching.  You can read more in Brian's post.

We should all strive to do real teaching all the time, and aim to rise to an inspired level as often as insight allows.  It's worth it.