Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

From: Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, by Donald L. Finkel

 * "Teaching with Your Mouth Shut" can also be read online and/or download as an ebook.

Meeting new people at parties, I inevitably face the question: “What do you do?”  since I am on the faculty of a liberal arts college, I could identify myself as a “professor.”  But I choose to take the question literally and answer by specifying an activity: I always say, “I teach college.”

But if the conversation proceeds any further, I usually get uncomfortable and try to change the topic.  Most people have a set of ready-made assumptions about what a teacher does.  A teacher talks, tells, explains, lectures, instructs, professes.  Teaching is something you do with your mouth open, your voice intoning.
This last phrase evokes an image of a boring teacher, but we think of “good teaching” simply as the artful, captivating version of the same activity (talking, telling, explaining…).  Hence, we always hear that a teacher is like an actor, and a good class like a good theatrical performance.

Most of us do remember fondly those brilliant teacher/actors we may have had.  After hearing their stirring lectures, we left their classrooms inspired, moved.  But did we learn anything?  What was left of this experience five years later?  These questions usually don’t get asked.  Because we were touched, we felt confident that we had learned.  A passionate teacher told us intellectually exciting things about her subject and we followed her line of thinking.  Surely we now know something we didn’t know before.  Isn’t this what learning consists of?  In what else could it consist?  What other shapes could teaching take?
Some teachers don’t teach this way.  I don’t teach this way.  I don’t see myself as an actor.  I think of myself as teaching with my mouth shut.  And that is why I get uncomfortable in social conversations about my work.  Other people impose on me their assumptions about teaching, and I squirm as I find myself misconstrued in this activity so central to my life.

Our natural, unexamined model for teaching is telling.  The fundamental act of teaching is to carefully and clearly tell students something they did not previously know.  Knowledge is transmitted, we imagine, through this act of telling.

And why should we not think this way?  What is wrong with this model, even granted that telling does not always succeed?  After all, if I invite a friend to dinner, and he is ignorant of the route to my house, I conquer his ignorance by telling him how to get there.  In such a situation, telling usually works, and since knowledge has been gained in the transaction, it seems natural to use telling as a model for teaching.

As parents, we also teach our children by telling them: We tell them that honesty is the best policy and that stealing is wrong; we tell them to put their dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and to turn down their stereos so they don’t damage their hearing; we tell them they have to work hard to get ahead in life.  Most of the things we want them to know, we tell them, usually over and over again.  Once more, telling seems a natural model for teaching.

Finally, what did we experience in school?  If we think back to our days in the classroom, we find that we spent most of our hours either listening to a teacher talk or doing various sorts of written work at our desk.  But the desk work seemed a practicing of what we learned, whereas the listening seemed the site of the actual learning.  (If it wasn’t our teacher telling us something, then it was the author of a textbook.)  So if telling is what teachers do when they teach, should we not take telling as the central act of teaching?

As plausible as this conclusion seems, there are good reasons to question it.  Consider the first case, telling my friend how to get to my house.  It is true that I supply him with facts he did not have before.  He can write my instructions down, and by adhering to them, get himself to my house.  But think about the implications of using the transmission of specific information as a model for teaching.  Specific information is notoriously hard to remember; that is why my friend writes my instructions down and why students who care about their grades take good notes during lectures.  But transmitting information from a teacher’s head to a student’s notebook is an inadequate objective for education.  Otherwise, we could have the teacher write the information directly in the notebook and leave the middleman (the student!) out of it.

This is why teachers give exams.  They want students to take that second step and transfer the information from their notebooks into their heads in order to pass their exams.  And students prove quite capable of taking this second step.  But how many could pass those same exams (without any subsequent preparation) five years later?  If this question seems unreasonable, ask yourself what justifies all those hours spent composing lectures, delivering them, taking notes, studying those notes, and taking exams.  If all these efforts do not aim to produce any significant, lasting learning, then what is their point?  Five years is not long to expect significant learning to last.  Yet few teachers assess their own efforts (even in their imagination) by means of a “five-year standard.”  It seems too much to ask.  But why should it be?

Educational research over the past twenty-five years has established beyond a doubt a simple fact: What is transmitted to students through lecturing is simply not retained for any significant length of time.  Consult your own experience.  How much do you remember from all that you were told in high school and college?
One scholar (Lion Gardiner) summarizes some of this research as follows:
…research clearly favors discussion over the lecture as an instructional method when the 
Variables studied are retention of information after a course is over, transfer of knowledge
To novel situations, development of skill in thinking or problem solving, or achievement
In affective outcomes, such as motivation for additional learning or change in attitudes
In other words, the kinds of learning we most care about.

Another review of the research (by D. A. Bligh) showed that lectures are “not especially effective, even for conveying content (i.e., facts) – largely because a good deal of the content presented by the instructor is not attended to by students and what is attended to may be distorted.”  Even if we were to accept the transmission of specific information as our goal in teaching, even if the come-to- my-house-for-dinner scenario were one we wanted to adopt as a prototype for learning, telling would prove inadequate as our model for teaching.  It is just not effective.
However, ineffectiveness is not the only reason for rejecting the instructions-to-my-house scenario.  When I tell my friend how to get to my house, I allow him to solve a specific problem (how to get to my house), but I do not enrich his understanding of geography, transportation, navigation, or anything else.  He doesn’t have to think differently after he has digested my instructions; he has neither deepened nor broadened his understanding of the world.  He simply has gained some facts he needs for a specific purpose.

We do need to learn facts about the world in order to get around in it, but absorbing specific information is not the kind of exemplary learning that ought to inspire a model of education.  On the contrary, education should aim at long-lasting learning that forever alters our grasp of the world, deepening it, widening it, generalizing it, sharpening it.

When genuine understanding develops, no effort is required to retain what has been learned.  A child who finally realizes that the amount of money he has in his pocket remains the same regardless of the order in which he counts the different coins must exert no effort to remember this discovery.  He can never “forget” what he now understands.  An adult who suddenly realizes why “I think” implies “I am” (in Descartes’ famous deduction) will not forget this insight.  He may develop beyond it, or transform it into a different insight, but he will require no effort to retain his new understanding of Descartes’ proposition.

With some important exceptions, most teachers are not trying to get their students to learn specific information, and this is not the kind of learning we are after when we send our kids to school.  What we want for them is the development of their understanding.

Unfortunately, as parents, we have not grasped that telling is an ineffective means to stimulate understanding.  So we tell our children over and over those things we think they need to understand most, even as we wonder why we have to repeat ourselves so often.  No matter how many times you told her, your daughter never did learn to put her clothes in the hamper, did she?  And that son of yours, always blasting his stereo, never did grasp the long-term threat to his hearing, no matter how frantically and how often you warned him.

You can tell your four-year-old son to imagine how his two-year-old sister will feel before he grabs her toy until you are blue in the face, but he will not do it.  He is simply too young to put himself in his sister’s place; the task is cognitively and emotionally beyond him.  If he could take the step you want him to, he actually would understand the world differently: His notions of right and wrong would be deepened.  But telling him to take that step is not going to get him to take it, no matter how many times you try.  Telling is simply not very effective in teaching the things we care most about.
Why, then, did our schoolteachers consume so much of our childhood telling us things?  Doesn’t the popularity of telling guarantee its legitimacy as a model for teaching?  If the question before us were about what teachers actually do with their time, we would concede that telling comes out on top of the list.  But we are asking here about “good teaching,” not just “frequent teaching,” and because our experience tells us that good teaching is rare, we will not get anywhere by analyzing the most frequent cases.

By giving up on the notion that teaching at heart consists of telling, we can begin to envisage other forms of teaching.  The minute we let go of the axiom that teaching equals telling, it is not hard to imagine alternatives.