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Author: John A. Dern

Students laughing while engaged in small group discussion—illustrating active learning
Encouraging Students to Use the Dictionary
unplugging cord

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the October 2008 print issue of The Teaching Professor. We're republishing this article, which is new to the site, as a companion to John A. Dern's recent piece on "critical moments." Read it here.

In William Wordsworth’s well-known sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us; Late and Soon,” the titular line’s meaning hinges on two words, the latter of which may initially seem insignificant: “world” and “with.” “World” refers to human affairs; and, of all the definitions for “with,” Wordsworth uses it in the sense of “accompany” or “attend”: human affairs too much attend us. We are so concerned with the minutiae of daily life, with “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth says, that we miss what is truly important.

The same can be said of our classes. Sometimes we are so concerned with following our lesson plans to the letter that we miss what is truly important: teaching moments. A teacher has to learn to listen to his or her class and realize when the moment to abandon the lesson plan has come. This willingness to release some control over the class and allow it to develop more or less organically does not always come easily, however. Goal-induced anxiety can make a teacher reluctant to let go of the reins out of fear that the class will go off in some random direction.

I still vividly recall the first day I ever taught a class. It was August 1991, and I was a graduate student. Sitting on some steps just outside of the classroom building, I was literally trembling with worry. Would 22 freshmen really believe I had anything worthwhile to say? Could I convince them of the content’s value? Would I be able to maintain control of the class? On that day, and for many semesters to come, I held very closely to my prearranged lesson plan, rarely loosening my grip on the reins for fear that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the goals that my department and I myself had set. My mistake was in believing that only one path, that is, the narrow path revealed by my lesson plans, would lead my students to those goals. The lesson was too much with me.

In February 2008, I had two of the best classes I have ever had, and their success had next to nothing to do with my lesson plan for those days. My students had read John Milton’s Areopagitica, and my intention was to use the First Amendment of the US Constitution as the paradigm for a discussion of Milton’s arguments for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. I introduced this scheme, and the first class proceeded (with modest success) with the students, for some little time, analyzing Areopagitica along this line.

As the discussion continued, however, Milton’s unorthodox opinion of the transgression of Adam and Eve emerged from the text. I hadn’t planned to make too much of this point, but I quickly noticed a change in the tenor of the class as it was broached. The students were genuinely interested in what Milton had to say on this point.

I let go.

The ensuing discussion, which continued from one class into the next, was one of the most vibrant in which I have ever participated. More important, the students, recognizing Milton’s connection between humans’ ability to use reason and Adam and Eve’s transgression, almost unwittingly got to the foundation of his arguments for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. In other words, they achieved the desired goal by walking a path very different from the one provided by my lesson plan.

During my 17 years of teaching, I have tried to make myself more aware of the fact that a lesson plan is a tool, not an end in itself. A teacher has to be willing to let a class develop organically because classes are organic. Every class is different, and the teacher has to listen to know when an opportunity for a teaching moment has arisen, for such moments are more valuable than whole semesters of rote. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observes in his meditation on marriage, Elective Affinities, “A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”

John A. Dern, PhD, is a professor of instruction in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia. A teacher since 1991, he received the 2009 Violet B. Ketels Award for teaching from the Intellectual Heritage Program and the 2017 College of Liberal Arts Teaching/Instructional Faculty Award.