The Precipice of Teaching

On a good day, when I go before one of my classes and give a presentation, students pelt me with pertinent questions. At least one of them stumps me. In some cases, I am missing a piece of information; in others, I knew the answer (or various answers) once but have forgotten. In others still, I haven’t considered the matter before—or find that the question topples everything I was saying, or at least a good chunk of it. Finding myself stumped is one of the best parts of teaching; for the students, much depends on how I handle it. Being able to say “I don’t know”—but also being able to hold my own—tells the students that adulthood is not just a realm of rules and answers, nor is education.

I could give examples galore, but I generally refrain from describing my classroom experience on this blog. I want to keep confidentiality, for one thing; for another, I don’t see this blog as a diary. I would not keep a public diary; it would be superficial. But closing off that option opens up others. I will look today at the precipice of teaching and how many of the educational fads aim to sand it out of existence.

You go before your students with the knowledge and understanding you have at a given time—what you have learned until now, what you have thought about, and what you can pull together for the moment and in the moment. You offer something to them and then start up discussion. They learn from you what it means to pull thoughts and knowledge together into something coherent. They look for missing pieces, contradictions, pitfalls in what you have said—and that’s exactly what they should be doing.

But teachers are under great pressure to abstain from direct teaching altogether—or to teach generic skills, which rarely provoke such questions; or to “individualize” instruction so that each student is working at his or her own pace; or to teach from a script, so as to preclude uncertainty or error. I will take a look at three of these tendencies. I have discussed them at length in other blogs and articles but not specifically in relation to the “precipice.”

According to proponents of “student-centered education,” a teacher should not do much talking. Instead, she should get the students talking as soon as possible—in groups, in pairs, in whole-class discussion—and refrain from passing judgment on what they say. She should not present herself as an authority figure, as someone who knows a subject; instead, she should indicate through every gesture that she and the students are learning together. Or else, if she does give a presentation, it should be very brief and should touch on the points that the students absolutely need to know before they begin their own work. Lecturing verges on crime, since it encourages passivity.

Now, that is nonsense on many levels—but I will address the question of lecturing. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing to high school students for the entire period, day after day. They need dialogue. But a twenty-minute presentation, at the start of a unit or topic, strikes me as entirely appropriate. If the students learn how to listen to me, and how to assemble and question what I am saying, then they will also be better prepared to listen to the books they are reading and to themselves. If they never have to listen to a teacher very long, then they never find the edges of what she is saying. Both they and the teacher drown in a bog of patness, where nothing gets challenged and nothing seems controversial. Even if the students debate questions, they respond to snippets, not ideas; they wield sticks, not dodecahedra.

Next, we have instruction that focuses on skills. Instead of leading a discussion of the nature of folly in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, a teacher might announce that the point of the lesson is to relate details to the whole—and might then read a passage, identify a detail, and show how it relates to the text’s overall meaning. Students would then practice doing this on their own, either with the same text or with a variety of texts. This approach has numerous problems and limitations; first of all, you miss out on a great deal if you do not discuss the actual substance of the work. You flatten it if you treat it as a means to a skill. (Of course one should encourage students relate details to the whole–but it’s another matter to subordinate the text to this.) When it comes to precipice, there just isn’t any. Unless a student challenges your own “modeling” of the skill, there isn’t much at stake in what you are teaching. It can’t go very wrong, precisely because it can’t go very right.

I’ll skip over individualized learning, since the problems there are similar to those discussed above, and proceed to the last one, scripted instruction, which doesn’t get much publicity lately but has some diehard devotees.

Proponents of scripted curricula argue that these programs have proven results—so if you use a different curriculum and can’t show equal or better results, you are shortchanging your kids. I have entered many regrettable arguments over this (regrettable because they go nowhere) but will point out, first of all, that results have meaning only in relation to a goal. If you want students to learn what Plato and Aristotle had to say, that’s different from wanting them to show progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension. The two goals may not always be at odds, but at times they might well be. “Results” in the abstract mean nothing. You must explain what you are trying to do. Part of what I want to do is introduce my students to intellectual life. Can I do this through a script? Possibly, if the script is of high intellectual quality. I could take, for instance, a lecture by a scholar, work and think through it, adapt for my class, and present it with full credit to its author. But even there, I would stay open to the risks of posing and answering questions. If the script forbade such departures, or if it reflected poor thinking about the subject, I would not teach from it, period. I would rather leave teaching than subject myself or my students to such a thing. The safety here is of a deadly sort.

Some may say that a script minimizes the damage that comes from faulty instruction–and that it’s better to say things right than to use your own mind and get it all wrong. Well, if things are that bad, if my own knowledge is so poor that my lessons would mislead students, then I would want to gain competence or go do something else. To me, there is no point in pursuing a profession in which I cannot use my mind to the fullest. Give me a routine day job, with limited hours, so that I can then do what I want in my own time. If I am to work as a teacher, putting most of my life into it, then I should be able to create my own lessons. There should be room for that much joy.

Students look to a teacher not only for what they have to learn right now, but for what lies ahead, in the subject and in their lives. Consciously or not, they take cues from a teacher’s manner. If a teacher can go to those places of uncertainty, grapple with difficult questions, admit to error, or give a fuller and richer explanation than the initial one, then they start to sense that life does not get all packaged up as soon as they reach a certain age. They grasp that you don’t just learn a subject and set it aside. It keeps following you around and pestering you; it makes you turn around and say, “what, what, what?” and then it holds up something you’ve never seen before, something that makes you drop your hands and stand still for a little while.

Leave a comment


  1. Once again, you’ve offered real insight into the complexities of teaching. Now, I obviously don’t share your hesitance to blog about my specific classroom experiences, but I respect your reasons for not doing so, and I realize the problems inherent in my decision to do so. In addition, I too am against mechanistic ideas of education, or the “scripts” you describe. Your explanation of their limitations is really smart and well-articulated. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and experiences, as they are really valuable to my own (never-ending) development as a teacher.

  2. Among other things, you illustrate brilliantly how the standards movement is contributing to the death of the humanities. Because everything a teacher does now must be linked to utility, measurement, and outcomes, there’s no room for rambling (yet provocative) discussions of Plato and Erasmus. Arts and literature courses use to be ends in themselves, that end arising from the idea that exposure to and discussion of the collective great works of mankind was good for the mind. Now our schools are attempting a radical departure from scholastic tradition while still paying lip service to it: they maintain course titles like “Language Arts” and “Reading,” but the test preparation going on in these courses bears little relationship to why these disciplines originated in the first place. Did Thomas Aquinas advocate controlling for outcomes?

  3. Thanks for fighting the good fight! Your article (and comments following) offer further proof that extraordinary professionals are teaching our kids in the public schools, and against overwhelming odds.

  4. Thank you for these encouraging comments.


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