Friday, February 7, 2014

The Heart of Instruction

In conversations about instruction with student teachers or mentees or other teaching colleagues, it always comes back to the question that is at the heart of all instruction:

Why am I teaching this?

If "heart of instruction" is too squishy, call it "the foundation of instruction" or "the philosphical underpinnings of pedagogy." The point is that all the decisions that we make in a classroom come back to this question.

All the questions surrounding instructional design-- What activities should I use? What questions should I ask? What pacing should I use? How should I direct discussion? What sort of assessment task should I use, and what should it include? -- all of these questions take us back to the heart of instruction.

Why am I teaching this?

Teachers of A Certain Age will remember the years in which we were encouraged to make our lessons relevant. "Make it relevant" is on my short list of Worst Advice Ever, because it assumes that the work has no relevance to begin with. Nobody tries to figure out how to make water wet. The material we teach should matter, and we should know why, and if we do not know why, we shouldn't be teaching it.

My students learn early on not to ask the eternal question "Why do we have to do this stuff?" unless they mean it, because I will answer them. Sometimes I answer them before they even ask. Thirty years ago, I might have struggled with this question, but today I can answer it for every unit I teach. But having an answer is not enough, because not all answers are created equal.

Consider Romeo and Juliet and all the reasons that teachers I have worked with have expressed, implicitly and explicitly, for teaching Shakespeare's classic contribution to the canon.

* I want students to grasp the soaring beauty of Shakespeare's language

* So that students can experience some of the process of turning words on a page into live theater

* The last guy to teach this class had it in his course plan

* So students can some day boast, "I have read a whole Shakespeare play and I know what it was about."

* To understand some of the literary techniques used in the play.

* I love these kids and I love this play and I want to share its awesomeness with them. It will be fun!

* All 9th grade English teachers are supposed to cover R&J

These disparate answers lead to entirely different units, and, of course, a few of them lead to really lousy units, because they aren't answers at all.

Here are some other bad answers to the question at the heart of instruction:

* Because it will be on the test, and if students don't do well on the test, we will all be punished.

* Because it's in the scripted lesson.

* Because somebody ordered me to.

These are bad answers because they don't help inform instruction. They don't give us purpose or direction; they don't help us make choices about instructional design or implementation. They lead to instruction that is bloodless, lifeless, joyless, pointless. They are the equivalent of kissing your wife "because that's what husbands are supposed to do."

It's an issue that's not new or uniquely related to the current reformy movement, but the bad actors of the reformatorium believe that these answers are not only not bad, but are actually admirable and worth pursuing. Why should we teach this? Because people with power say so, and because they'll punish us if we don't follow their orders. We don't need any other purpose other than financial threats and rewards, right?

Yet even the worst of reasons given don't fall to the level of "Because someone will give me money if I do and take away my money if I don't." Reform fails because it doesn't seem to understand why anybody does anything.

Teaching, like life, should have a purpose. Do it like you mean it. Move like you have a purpose. Know why you are teaching this, whatever this may be.Hold onto the heart of instruction.


  1. If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to paste an excerpt of some creative writing about being a teacher, in my experience. It was in light of Teacher Appreciation Week.
    " Who Is a Teacher? By Hilary Keller Connors

    ...But students are also our burdens in ways no parent, nor principal,
    nor CEO, nor bus driver could ever comprehend.
    If they fail, we fail. If they give up, it leaves us empty.
    We go hungry for the simple morsels of their effort, success and interest.
    When they awaken, succeed or mature,
    we partake in their joy. Their pride is our pride...
    ...I am glad to be a teacher in many ways:
    for those students who finally smile three weeks before school’s out,
    those who remember the lessons after the test,
    those who find their talent,
    those who show compassion without being asked,
    and diligence when their peers don’t value hard work.

    If only I was treated like a professional, by students,
    by parents, by administrators, and by the media.
    If there was more hunger for knowledge in my classroom, in my school, and in my world;
    maybe then, I wouldn’t wear the mask of a teacher... "

    As an English teacher, you may find grammatical or spelling errors; try to overlook them for the purpose of the piece. Thank you for speaking so freely via your blog.