Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 11/2/2003 11:52 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part VII

(17) Content, content, content. Information. Information. Information. Critical thinking skills. Nothing wrong with them. They're critical to be sure, but they are not the alpha and omega of education. The great teachers are not content with merely transmitting content and honing thinking skills. Do you know why some educational visions are more powerful than others? The powerful ones go beyond "know," "think," and even "do." They're the ones that inspire and guide; they're the ones that have purpose and meaning. We are in an educational age that is content-driven and job-getting centered. As a result, if you look at most students eyes in the classroom, and you may not agree with me, education is deadening. So often so much of the life is gone, sucked out. Content doesn't offer meaning; it doesn't inspire; it doesn't provide guidance of purpose; it just isn't a turn-on. So, you learn about iambic pentameter. Now what. So you learn about the Battle of Waterloo. Now what. So you learn about phyla and molecules and leverage. Now what. What about life after the classroom? To be sure, content offers extraordinary power. We send "content people" out from our campuses with lots of information and intellectual skills to influence the world in incredible micro and macro ways. They can ravage and pollute the land, blow it to smithereens, war efficiently on each other, communicate instantly across the globe, alter the weather, punch holes in the atmosphere, send people into the limits of outer space, send people to the depths of the oceans, modify genetic structure, change the course of the mightiest of rivers, prolong life, wipe out species, and go faster than a speeding bullet. That's extraordinary power. It seems to me, however, with acquisition of such power has to go "character skills," morally responsible ways of living. Over the last decade, this has seemed to me to be a profound problem: merely transmitting information and developing skills to use information is like giving my eighteen month Natalie a bigger and bigger hammer to bang away with. So, teaching starts with meaningfulness. It continues with meaningfulness. Teaching and learning is supposed to help students provide themselves with information, intellectual skills, and help them make sense of and find meaning in what they acquire, do, and will do. When we do all that, education will come alive and be enlivening.

(18) When we talk about "teacher," the first image that usually comes first to our mind is that of an activity of an individual at the head of a classroom. I submit that teaching is merely not an individual endeavor. In the classroom context it is a class action and interaction of all participants. This communal definition does several things. First, it embraces and includes everyone as a teacher-learner: professor teaches and learns from students; students teach and learn from the professor; students teach and learn form each other. Second, it underlines the often ignored reality that there are no teachers unless there are students and there are no students unless there are teachers. Third, we assess a great teacher on the basis of the impact that person has on the students around him or her. Fourth, it means one person can't do it all, but be a participant in the doing. So, teaching is a relationship; it is a community activity. Teaching is, therefore, both individual and communal. Think about it. Most people find that a hard concept to grasp. I know I did at first.

(19) Teaching is an "F" word. I've said that when I said I am a "F"aith based teacher. I am, however, also a "F"ree based teacher. No, I am not sniffing cocaine. As far as teachers are concerned, we all proclaim to be adherents and promoters of academic freedom. Far too many academics, however, think that such pronouncements are sufficient. Yet, while they claim to be free and freely acting, they're cautiously looking over their shoulder afraid to take risks, to make mistakes, worried about what others think, concerned with how their quest for tenure or promotion or appointment will be affected. They find it difficult if almost impossible to enter the realm of possibilities. The absence of external controls, then, is not in and of itself freedom. Too many of us are prisoners of controls that are deeper, less obvious, more pernicious, and far more pathological: perceived controls with which we imprison ourselves. First, we're only truly free when are without anxiety about non-perfection. Reality never shows up exactly according to our plans. The best theories and abstractions are probably the best way to destroy the best in teaching. Teaching is about what we do, not what we say. The students and classroom and academia are not supposed to be perfectly in accord with our ideas. We may not be able to change the academic world, but we must be adaptable, flexible, free to work on perfecting ourselves and our ways to deal with the imperfect and changing world around us. Second, too many of us tend to see ourselves in familiar, tried-and-true, safe ways, according to the images and models we have held tightly for so long. It's that "this is me" or "I am ...." thing. Too many of us have only one way of looking at ourselves, at students, at the classroom, at our profession; too many of us have only one way of thinking, feeling, and doing. From my point of view, freedom is the "freedom to," to adjust to the changing scene, to strike out and do something new, to get out of the proverbial box, to stay out of entering any other box, to create something that is meaningful and valuable to both me and each student, to change in order to respond to inevitable change.

As for the students, as I must be free so I must help students help themselves to likewise. Both we academics and students often confuse teaching with bossing. Teaching has nothing to do with position; bossing does. Teaching is not really being in a position where you can tell someone else what to do, although that view may be the result of a set of ideas coming from our society's historical experience, religious upbringing, our schools, from society in general. When Ph.D.s or scholars-in-residence or whomever are in positions of authority, we expect them to exhibit some "teaching-ship." Why? The answer is simple. Because everyone will be happier. They will be more effective if they can empower and inspire while they are informing. And when that doesn't happen, we run for cover. We make every effort to believe it does with a host of rationalizations or excuses when it doesn't. Why? The answer is simple. Because everyone will be happier.

Teaching is about having the capacity to shape the future. It's about teachers who empower, inspire, resonate, listen, learn, keep on track with purpose and meaning, authentic, respect and value others, explore, innovate, risk. I am a minimalist when it comes to classroom rules in order for each student to have the opportunity to be a maximalist. To me one of the best signs of a great teacher is somebody who can create a process, bring the students project, and leave. The great teachers don't have the ego to be there; they leave it to the student to carry on. The great teacher is he who affords the students the opportunity to say we did this ourselves. That was a paraphrase from something said about 2,800 years ago.

In a rule-heavy class, students tend not to be free, tend to stop thinking, and tend merely to slavishly obey. My vision of learning in the classroom led to the establishment of a single rule that invariably has profound constructive impact on almost all the students. I have discussed it many times over the years. So, I won't belabor you with a description of it: "Remember the Chair." No other rule is really necessary. I don't take up all the space. I don't have to. Like my good friend John Lawry says, we have to get out of each student's space so that he or she can have his or own space. Doesn't mean, by myself ,I can make everything happen just the way I want it to, but I feel a sense of deep confidence. I can be part of shaping the future without doing all the shaping. It endows each student with both freedom and responsibility. It says to a student, using Jack Kornfield's words, "You got good stuff in there young man or woman. Let me see it. I'm going to turn this whole thing over to you. Let's see how you can do it." A student doesn't have to ask permission what to learn, how to learn, in what manner to learn, when to learn. I have found that such an attitude on my part generally builds a desire to learn as a student begins the process of learning. The students experience a degree of real freedom, of what Steve Sample might call "thinking free," of what Peter Senge might call "real learning," of what Parker Palmer might call "fearless learning," and of what Ellen Langer might call "mindful learning." None of this "what do you want?" from a student. None of this "Is this okay?" None of this "Can I do it this way?" None of this "what if we're wrong?" None of this "how will this effect my grade?" My answer to such questions is a simple "You heard the rules." Or I'll simply remain silent, look at them with a supportive smile until they remember the chair and utter an acknowledged "Remember the Chair." I have found, and the research bears me out, that the ambiguous, uncertain, freedom-giving rules, as well as supportive coaching and mutual support, will provoke more students to learn than will semi-conscious rote learning, mindless memorization, authoritarian delivery of information, and fearful test-taking.

By the way, freedom is a word we use a lot and don't think about. For most people it means "you can't force me to do something I don't want to do." Freedom is very meaningful to us because it's a kind of "don't tread on me" anti-obedience "I'm going to do my own thing." For an iconclast and contrarian such as I am, "freedom from" is only one aspect. There's another and more important sense of freedom. It's not the absence of something. It's not merely the absence of overbearing authority, constricting domination, and strict control; it's not merely the absence of rehesitant and paralytic fear. More importantly, it's the presence of something. It's the presence of listening to yourself and not only to someone else. It's the presence of the experience and deep belief that "I can do it. I can make it happen." It's the presence of the opportunity to get out of the rut-worn, conventional, tired, predictable, boring, dulling proverbial box. It the entering into that world of possibilities.

As teachers, if "teacher-ship" is about tapping the capacity of human individuals, we as teachers have one fundamental and critical task. We need to help each student look for, release, utilize, and discover the magic in his or her innate curiosity, imagination, experimentation, and creativity.

Curiosity, imagination, experimentation, creativity, discovery, innovation, invention are the seven reasons we are who we are.

There's a third "F" in teaching I want to reflect about. I've mentioned it before. I'd like to revisit it: fear.

That's for another time.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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