Recently I’ve undertaken a new learning project: identifying the trees in the woods around my home. I’ve lived among trees for most of my life and feel a special affinity toward them, but I can’t name most of them. I’ve bought a tree book and am discovering that to identify trees I need to look at them in a whole different way.
Identification depends on observation—close, prolonged, attention to the various parts of the trees. I’m amazed at how many details I’ve missed. Interesting, isn’t it, how you can look at something for years and yet fail to see so much that matters. Might this be true of our teaching? It’s such an ever-present part of us. Do we live it and never see much of it? With trees, personal involvement doesn’t get in the way. I’m attached to them, but not to any particular tree type. I just want to know what each of them is, whether an eastern red or white cedar. Objectivity makes the identification process easier. Deep investments in our teaching make objectivity elusive.
Careful, thoughtful observation of one’s teaching has implications when it comes to implementing changes. I worked with many faculty who’d decide to make a change without having correctly identified what they needed to change. For example, you want to increase student participation, and you decide to do that by asking more questions. Do you know how many you currently ask? Do you ask and no one answers? What do you do then? What expressions cross your face? Do you rephrase the question? Is it a rephrasing or what sounds to students like a different question? Changes unrelated to the problem generally fail to achieve the desired result, and that erodes commitment to the change process. Seeing the details deepens my understanding of trees. Observation does the same for teaching.
When I look at trees stand back and look up. I walk around and move in close. I look at the shape of the crown, how the branches grow in relation to the trunk, the color and texture of the bark. If the leaves are out, I check their arrangement on the branch, opposite or alternating. Observation of trees and teaching involves a focus on details. In teaching, gestures, eyes contact, facial expressions, how and when we move enable helps us identify our teaching selves. Despite the challenges associated with self-observation, presentational details merit attention. A repetitious gesture, almost always indicative of nervousness, sometimes attracts more attention than the message.
Even so, like trees, teachers are way more than a collection of shared details. I quickly learned that trees are individuals. Some of the differences result from cross breeding, others from age, and still others from location, but the two imposing black walnuts on either side of the driveway look distinctly different. Disciplines, like species, organize faculty into groups, but every teacher is an individual, even though they may teach the same content, use the same strategies, and structure courses with same policies. Shared instructional features combine in way that make every teacher one of a kind.
I carry Trees of Pennsylvania in my pocket as I walk the woods. Most of the time when I stand by a tree and look carefully, I still can’t identify it. I start through the book and come up with some possibilities. I’m struck by how much even fine color photos differ from the real thing. The leap from a two-dimensional photo to a three-dimensional tree alters the perspective. The colors in the picture and on the tree aren’t the same. I don’t know; I’m guessing, not identifying.
I’m reminded of how much of our content students explore in books or other print resources. It feels like learning, but head knowledge rarely functions well in those early attempts to apply it. I’m wishing I’d done a better job of teaching my students the difference between what’s known abstractly and what’s understood actually. I confidently recite the characteristics of a pin cherry to my family. Then I stand in front of an actual wild cherry completely confused as to whether it’s a pin or black cherry. I could pass one kind of test but not the one that really matters.
What I need is a teacher, but not one who tells me the right answer. I need a teacher who lets me know whether my guess is correct and then listens to me talk through the reasons, asking questions that challenge incorrect assumptions or inquiring about what I haven’t noticed. I don’t want someone to identify the trees. I want to do that, but I can see how much a teacher would help.