Here’s a great quote from Saul Griffith in a past issue of MAKE magazine… “Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk.”
I was thinking about this the other day as I was talking with my wife about how even “creative teaching” can become burdensome when it’s rote. I remember coming home from school in the third grade, excited about a brand new investigation we were about to start in class, only to have my older sister say that she could tell me everything I’d need to know (and do) because she’d done it just two years earlier with the same teacher.
Of course, teachers–like writers, accountants, doctors, cooks, and just about everyone else–recycle successful work from the past. And of course, we hope that the work grows and changes based on our own experience, the individual interests and learning styles of our students and the dynamics of the classroom. But like everyone else, teachers get overwhelmed and tired. We can easily be drawn to reach into that same bag of tricks over and over. Even the most creative lesson or project (the first time) becomes didactic when we think we know exactly how it’s supposed to go, and what the end result will be. In fact, I bet if you took a video of these types of projects from year to year, you’d see not only the teacher, but the students become less and less engaged.
As adults we know that we do have a responsibility to teach our children well. But it’s like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song: our children will also teach us. We’re too often trapped by the triple threat of adulthood: 1- We have a responsibility to care for and protect our children; 2- We don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re talking about; and 3- We think we’re too old to learn anything new.
So, how do we avoid this trifecta of stink? I think the solution is simple, yet somewhat uncomfortable and hard to do within the context of traditional (or even untraditional) learning environments. We have to tackle questions and experiments with our students to which we do not already know the answers. We have to be willing to be wrong and to understand that rather than making us look stupid in front of our charges, it provides us with an opportunity to model the type of learning we’re trying to encourage. We also have to be willing to listen to students’ ideas and thoughts, and to explore the implications even when we don’t think they’re going to take us where we want to go.
Now, this is not to say that our experience and wisdom shouldn’t determine how we structure investigations, or how we approach problems. Experience is the best teacher–whether it’s our own or someone else’s.
It all sounds easy. But no matter how hard one tries, there will always be a time that you’ll be standing at the front of the room looking at a bunch of people holding their noses.