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Education: Like a Drizzle or a Downpour?

For Those Who Teach

Education: Like a Drizzle or a Downpour?

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“Storms come and go fast. When the downpour reaches the ground, the water runs away quickly—little gets into the ground. Drizzle offers a different image—fine, slow, silent, and yet penetrating. Drizzle soaks into the ground. The Chinese have a saying: ‘Real education is like the spring drizzle, silently penetrating and nurturing.’” That’s an excerpt from an article by Xin-An Lu published in the May 2001 issue of the Teaching Professor.

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A cold, foggy drizzle settled over the farm here yesterday. Out for a walk with the dog, I couldn’t stop thinking about education and drizzle. No question, what happens to students in higher education is a noisy downpour: it rains on them an almost inconceivable number of facts, ideas, concepts, theories, problems, solutions, examples, questions, answers. It really isn’t surprising that a lot of this water simply runs off.

In a drizzle you don’t really know that you’re getting wet. Yesterday I felt the dampness but didn’t have the sense of being wet until I got back inside and saw all the drops of water on my hat and coat. Effective education is like that; you know you’re in it, you sense it, but you don’t really feel what it’s doing to you. It’s hard to see your writing improve, your thinking getting more critical, your problem-solving becoming better. Education does get you wet, but you may not realize until later that you’re pretty well soaked.

Getting wet in a drizzle is a holistic experience. You don’t get some drizzle on your face but none on your feet. You’re in it, surrounded by it, unable to escape from it. Is education that kind of holistic experience? Not usually. If the work in multiple courses comes together, forms coherent connections, that doesn’t happen because we teach the curriculum as an integrated whole. It’s more like a perfect storm. Curricular designs may be coherent, but their structures are more often assumed than made obvious. Students may happen onto how educational experiences relate and form webs of knowledge, or they may experience courses only as passing showers.

I like the metaphor. These days finds us very focused on learning, and that’s a good thing. But focus on one thing takes it away from another. I’m not hearing us talk much about how our collective endeavors become an education. A student doesn’t get educated in one course. It happens across a collection of them. How? And how might we do it better for more students? In the courses we teach, are there any ways we can get students out of the rain and into a drizzle, at least now and then?

Education encompasses learning. It’s larger, a space where learning about something and learning how to do something join forces, linking with other knowledge to become understandings, the wisdom that education exudes. In many classrooms and online, learning now happens in courses ripe with activity, participation, and engagement—we know learning isn’t passive. But I’m not sure education happens as well in noisy chaos.

Yesterday’s fog and drizzle settled slowly and quietly over the woods. But for the occasional drip, not much else moved or made sound. It’s that slow, steady drip that gets the drizzle into the ground. It soaks in and stays put until there’s a thirst to quench or sustenance to transport. Education has those same effects. It seeps inside a little bit at a time, seemingly too inconsequential to consider, too small to make a difference, but then when you need to figure something out, explain it, really understand it, you find out that you’ve got what you need. Thoughts collide, there’s a flash of insight, and you have an answer. A lot of education happens underground, noiselessly fed by a slow drizzle.

These days find students highly focused on professional credentials—and that’s not an inappropriate objective either. It’s just that higher education can be about so much more than professional preparation. We describe it as the chance to “get an education”—an opportunity to learn how to think, ask questions, search for answers, analyze options, broaden perspectives, find out who we are, grow, change, and begin to become wise. How likely is that to happen during the downpour the night before an exam?


Lu, X.-A. (2001, May). Education: The fury of a storm or the music of a drizzle. The Teaching Professor, 15(5), 5.


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