“When are you going to run out of things to write about?” a colleague recently quipped in an email. Truth be known, I’ve wondered that myself. I do regularly revisit topics I’ve covered previously, but hopefully with new ideas and information. Surprisingly, when it’s time to write the weekly column, ideas do come to mind. How can that be? I started writing The Teaching Professor in 1987.
During the years I worked at Penn State, I interviewed a group of award-winning teachers, and one of them claimed with great passion that the only reason he was any good at all was that he taught geology, without question the most fascinating topic in the world. I share that feeling, only I write about teaching and learning.
When I first started writing about teaching, I wrote from experience. Like so many of us, I started my career not knowing much of anything about teaching. I learned by doing while students looked on. Those early experiences taught me a lot, or so I thought, but after a few months writing a newsletter, I’d shared everything I knew about teaching and hadn’t yet given learning a thought.
Most of us begin with a pretty simplistic understanding of teaching. We know our subject and expect that’s all we need. Early experiences in the classroom make clear that content isn’t enough. We need strategies, techniques, good policies; problems arise, and we look for solutions and find answers, mostly from colleagues. Our understanding of teaching deepens, but it still stays pretty close to the surface.
Some teachers continue on with a fairly straightforward understanding of teaching and its relationship to learning. “I only knit socks,” I heard a patron proclaim in a yarn store. “That’s all I want to do. I can make them without thinking, and I’ve got lots to give as gifts.” It’s the “without thinking” part that can also apply to teaching. Some do teach without giving it much thought, and that approach isn’t all bad. The patron showed off the pair of socks she was wearing, and they were nice. But that doesn’t mean she understands a lot about knitting.
In some ways I’m describing how I used to teach which was pretty good but very much the same, course after course. For a number of years my writing on teaching (some of which I now read with embarrassment) didn’t unearth many of the complexities that lie beneath virtually every aspect of teaching and learning. At this deeper level, answers are no longer easy, solutions rarely obvious, and possible options multiple. It’s what we do know, don’t know, or haven’t yet put together that intrigues me now. I use writing to explore and map a landscape where research intersects with practice, where experiential knowledge tangles with theory, and where teachers discover simple questions harbor profound implications.
For a second or maybe a third time, I’ve been trying to figure out how a teacher knows when to intervene with a learner or a collection of them, say, working in a group. They’re struggling, trying but still confused, and not understanding—experiencing the joyless, hard, messy work of learning. Should the teacher intervene? Give them the answer or point them in the right direction?
Teachers like to fix learning problems, and they do so effectively. They’ve got answers, solutions, ideas, and explanations. Helping brings joy and fulfills a professional responsibility. But the inability to fix problems makes learners dependent on teachers. Someday students aren’t going to have a teacher they can text for answers.
If I want to offer teachers advice, lay out a few rules of thumb, hooks on which decisions to intervene can be hung, what do I know, what have I read, and what does the research say? I find truisms. Learning that matters is never easy. Students need to struggle. But other evidence finds that after repeated effort and no progress, most learners give up. Beliefs about what they can’t do finds further confirmation. And for teachers? Well, sometimes they should help; sometimes they shouldn’t. That’s hardly a helpful answer.
I hope my writing clears the clutter and opens up the space, that it brings the issues to teachers and challenges them to take a look. A good intervention responds to what students need at the moment: it’s specific, not general, and best determined by the teacher. What keeps me writing are these simple questions with big pragmatic implications. They matter. How the teacher intervenes makes a difference. It can help, hurt, or be without effect.
What we do and don’t know, what we have and haven’t figured out about countless aspects of teaching and learning fascinates, frustrates, and best of all leads to learning. The deeper we dig, the more we grow. The deeper we dig, the more securely we’re rooted and the more we’re ready for growth.