Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Those who can do...

I was reflecting on the phase from where it originated I do not know, except that it ended up in pop culture somehow. It goes, “those who can do, and those who can’t teach.” After teaching for a few months now I can say with confidence that there are those who can’t teach. It is not as easy as the catchy phase makes it seem. Imagine trying to hold the interest of 30 teenagers, engage them in learning, and at some point help them to learn something they did not know they needed learn. Imagine selling something that your customer does not want to buy, all the while trying to please your boss who wants you to meet your quota. Imagine being a drill sergeant who has a platoon of new recruits to train who have been conscripted into service against their will, and then disallowed to yell at or hit them. Imagine trying to make the Cold War as interesting as American Idol, generating interest in American government when students just want to watch South Park. These are some of the obstacles to teaching.

So then this is my phrase in response to the one we all know, “those who can sometimes do, but those who can can’t necessarily teach others to do it.” Have you ever tried to teach someone something that you knew how to do? Was it frustrating? You see it on the golf course all the time. Undoubtedly there is someone out there who went along with his buddies because of peer pressure but has no idea what to do (like me). All of his friends are likely to try to help him. “Hold your hands like this…” “Keep your head down…” “Use a different club…” “Grip it looser…” The advice is never ending, but inevitably their rookie friend will not improve because all of this new information is too much and he has little experience with golf. Probably his friends will give up on him and let him hack his way through 18 holes. So then can everyone teach who can do? I think not.

Teaching today, and always as far as I can tell, is a very challenging thing. It is not a matter of simply transferring knowledge from one mind to another. Teachers and students are not computers. It takes creativity, empathy, communication, and sensitivity among other things. I heard someone say that teaching history is most effective when told as a story. History can be very interesting, but history teachers often make it boring. For instance, we studied the space race, and instead of making it about V2 and Jupiter rockets which is boring, our lesson focused more on monkeys and the lunar landing. My students were interested in the space race when I suggested that there is a possibility that we did not actually land on the moon. Some of them were shocked. How could that be? I asked them if we could land on the moon tomorrow, and most answered that we could, however we could not because our space program revolves around the shuttle, and the shuttle cannot land on the moon and then leave again. They were hooked. Suddenly a boring lesson about space ships turned into a heated discussion on whether we faked it. Is such a thing possible? Why would we fake it? How can we know for sure? Questions were flying and learning was happening. I was very pleased.

You see there are many ways to transfer information or “teach.” The challenge is in finding the method that is most effective. Power point, videos, books, computer programs, there are many tools that a teacher can use, but like other tools, they are only as effective as the person wielding them. If you don’t think I am right, try to teach something to someone else who knows nothing about it. Try to teach your girlfriend about horsepower, or your sister about baseball. For women, try to teach your boyfriend, or husband about skin care, or laundry. The point is not that there are not women interested in baseball or men who can do laundry, but the point is that it is not always as easy as it seems to teach someone something they are not naturally interested in. Therein lies the most significant challenge to teaching. So think about that the next time someone makes teaching the butt of a joke, or you hear the phase, “those who can do, and those who can’t teach.”

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