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Critical Moments: How Focusing on Individual Words Can Lead to Learning

Editor's Pick Student Learning Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Critical Moments: How Focusing on Individual Words Can Lead to Learning

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In the very first article I ever wrote for The Teaching Professor, I quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 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.” My article, “The Lesson Is Too Much with Us: Recognizing Teaching Moments,” has a simple thesis: “Sometimes we are so concerned with following our lesson plans to the letter that we miss what is truly important: teaching moments.” In my article, I define “teaching moments” as organic instances where the possibility of pedagogy arises from a teacher’s listening skills. Students’ obvious interest in a specific aspect of class discussion inspires the teacher to “let go” of the day’s plans and journey with the students down a new, unforeseen, and potentially fruitful pathway toward learning.

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In the very first article I ever wrote for The Teaching Professor, I quoted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 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.” My article, “The Lesson Is Too Much with Us: Recognizing Teaching Moments,” has a simple thesis: “Sometimes we are so concerned with following our lesson plans to the letter that we miss what is truly important: teaching moments.” In my article, I define “teaching moments” as organic instances where the possibility of pedagogy arises from a teacher’s listening skills. Students’ obvious interest in a specific aspect of class discussion inspires the teacher to “let go” of the day’s plans and journey with the students down a new, unforeseen, and potentially fruitful pathway toward learning.

Like teaching moments, “critical moments” offer a potentially fruitful pathway toward learning. In their origins, they may be less organic than teaching moments, but both approaches stem from the belief that, as Goethe suggests, less is more. Rather than overwhelm students with an abundance of information, start small. Focus students’ attention on a judiciously chosen individual word and then see where the lesson takes them.

When it comes to helping students develop critical thinking and analytical skills as well as promoting class discussion, don’t underestimate the potential of individual words. Textual analyses that begin with a focus on a specific word not only help students realize the value of close reading, but they also can provide a foundation for broader textual analysis and related critical interpretation. Consider an example from The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the texts I regularly teach. Early in the poem, the unknown narrator describes the formidable title character as “Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible” (p. 2). In this sequence of parallel adjectives, the word “terrible,” a seemingly negative trait, might seem anomalous next to the rather positive descriptors “tall” and “magnificent” if we take “terrible” to mean “outrageous” or “very badly behaved” (Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “terrible, adj., adv., and n.,” def. A.2.b.). But the word “terrible” can also mean “awe-inspiring” and “awesome” (OED, 3rd ed., s.v. “terrible, adj., adv., and n.,” def. A.1.). I have students substitute one of these latter words for “terrible”: “Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and awesome.” The parallel structure coheres better if one substitutes a more positive word for “terrible,” and as the text describes him, Gilgamesh really is awesome. As students find out after reading a bit further, however, Gilgamesh is terrible in the negative sense as well! In this instance, by beginning with a focus on one well-chosen adjective, my students and I have the foundation for a productive discussion about the ambiguity and complexity of Gilgamesh’s characterization.

This technique, moreover, is not limited to literary texts. Another text I teach regularly, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, has a similar critical moment early in the treatise. Near the beginning of Sidereus Nuncius’s “Astronomical Message,” as he prepares to discourse on his discoveries, Galileo writes, “Now let us review the observations made by us during the past 2 months, inviting all lovers of true philosophy to the start of truly great contemplation” (emphasis added) (p. 39). In this context, the word “true” means “agreeing with reality; correct” (OED, 3rd ed., s.v. “true, adj., n., adv. and int.,” def. II.4.a.). More important, in Galileo’s time, proponents of Copernican heliocentrism had just begun to challenge society’s insistence on Aristotelian geocentrism. As a result, Galileo’s use of this one simple word can provide the catalyst for a broader historical discussion of how emerging modern science—“true philosophy”—had begun to provide an alternative way of understanding the cosmos and humans’ place in it, as opposed to the teachings of long-held traditional cosmology. Further, the simple word “true” in this sentence foreshadows the disdain that Galileo evinces for traditional philosophers’ cosmology throughout the text—an important subtext in Sidereus Nuncius that my students can subsequently analyze and consider more readily when inspired by this one-word critical moment.

Goethe refers to “one single good action” and “one single good poem” as pedagogically more valuable than “rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.” He elevates feeling over rote and the one over the many. Not dissimilarly, critical moments can begin with one single good word, seemingly insignificant, but recognized by the teacher beforehand for its pedagogical potential. If the teacher has chosen the right word, then that word can be the catalyst for a journey of discovery not unlike those to which teaching moments so often lead.

References

Dern, J. A. (2008, October). The lesson is too much with us: Recognizing teaching moments. The Teaching Professor, 22(8), 1.

The epic of Gilgamesh (A. George, Trans.). (2003). Penguin Books.

Galileo. (2015). Sidereus nuncius (A. Van Helden, Trans.) (2nd ed.). The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1610)


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.