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Faculty Development Center

The Teachable Moment Archives

How We Learn

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles I wrote for a college newspaper. The idea was to explain to students what teachers thought about teaching and learning.


How do we learn? This is an innocent little question but it hides a universe of theories, none of which may provide comfort in the first moments of an exam when the concept of “brain freeze” takes on a new and ominous meaning.

The short answer is that we learn with our minds and that this is one of those important things that distinguish us from lentils and mayflies. Apparently, we are learning sponges, soaking up everything that comes along from the moment of entry into this “buzzing, blooming, confusion of life,” as William James put it. Sensory impressions, the foundation of experience, are the coins of this realm, and yet even as children we quickly discover that some of our coins may be counterfeit—not to be trusted.

But did you notice the metaphor used in the previous paragraph, the one about “learning sponges?” It implies that our minds are receptacles—empty ones at that—and experiences fill these receptacles up. Another variation is the mind as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, a concept that most of us take for granted as a given in the universe. In this view, we are born with empty blackboards for minds and experience of all kinds is writ large upon us. Thus, there is no possibility of innate ideas or of universal patterns of thought and feeling because everything we know relies on outside influences.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist teaching at Harvard, deals this viewpoint a devastating blow in his book, The Blank Slate. Our brains are wired, says Pinker, for certain kinds of thinking, acting, and feeling. Much of this comes from necessity, since those who can literally think on their feet can use their minds to calculate the odds of survival and can choose to run away, to stay and fight, or to engage in conflict resolution. Believers of the blank slate viewpoint are fearful that the concept of innate ideas might justify prejudice and injustice, for example, because they are completely “natural.” Not so, says Pinker, who notes that common patterns of thinking and feeling don’t relieve the user of that brain from moral actions and choices.

The real argument behind all this, however, is whether we have a human nature or not. Those who believe that we do, people like Steven Pinker, see a possibility for common ground between people from different cultures. No matter what the variations that might be played, says Pinker, there are certain themes that run through our thoughts and actions. If we know what those themes are we can act in ways that might offset the negatives and accentuate the positives. Moral choices are still our lot, says Pinker, but now we know why we must make them.

Here’s another fascinating look at the human experience as outlined by psychologist Richard Nisbett in his book, The Geography of Thought. Nisbett argues that Asians and Westerners think in completely different ways and thus have very different views on human nature and the nature of the universe. Western thought derives from Greek individuality, the belief in absolutes, and the eternal conflict of opposites. Asian thought, specifically Chinese thought, places the community first, looks at particular actions in their wider context, and believes in a balance of opposites. These differences, says Nisbett, are not a matter of choice or whimsy. Rather, they actually affect what Westerners and Asians perceive in the world around them.

Such research shows that many Asians really are much better at math and the sciences but not good as Westerners at producing revolutionary science. Westerners value assertiveness and directness while Easterners cultivate harmony in relationships between people. If we know these things, says Nisbett, we can communicate much better with people who are not like us. Prejudice—seemingly hardwired into us—will not spark new conflicts if we are genuinely working to understand and not simply to judge the other person.

So when teachers ask you to make connections between ideas and not just repeat the obvious, it’s an invitation to realize how you learn in the midst of this buzzing, blooming life.

Dr. Barry L. Casey is the Interim Director of the Faculty Development Center.

Meet Me Halfway


At different times in my life I have seen a baboon in the economics section of a public library, a dinosaur in the fading light of a construction site, and Richard Nixon in church. The Nixon thing is completely understandable: a former college president I knew was a dead ringer for Nixon when Nixon occupied the White House. Seeing him onstage in church during that college’s centennial celebrations gave me a momentary jolt, since Nixon is gone but not forgotten, while our college president was forgotten (briefly) but decidedly and blessedly not gone.

As for the baboon and the dinosaur. . . well, let’s just say that the human mind can misperceive a lot of things. One minute I’m looking at a full-grown brontosaurus, the next minute at a crane manufactured in Japan. The baboon is a little harder to reconcile with reality, particularly since it apparently presented itself to me posterior first. After a double take and then a closer look, it was determined that some students had rolled a red beach ball into the aisle and then forgotten it. My mind had indisputably seen a baboon rudely mooning me; a quick but firm reality check restored things to their boring normality.

I mention this only to point out the obvious: things are not always what they seem. However, they are more like what they seem more often than not—it’s the “than not” bit that can throw us. To wit: I have spent hours writing an exam, a beautiful little gem of an assessment device, one designed to call on the best and highest orders of the educated mind—in short, idiot-proof—and then a student finds the one dark corner of repressed idiocy latent in us all and blows the whole thing wide open. Off this student goes on a track of musing I could never have thought up on my own, and yet to my wondering eye what should appear but a short, misshapen figure of twisted logic. Right there before my eyes a beach ball morphs into a baboon’s behind—and all I can do is shake my head in a kind of reluctant admiration: I thought we were here but now we’re there, and how did that happen?

Please, don’t misunderstand me—I am not assuming that my communication is crystal clear nor that students exhibit more idiocy than the Masters of the Universe who slink among us. Quite the opposite: I am in awe that people get as much communicated between themselves as they do. Between the mind and mouth there is a veritable minefield of obstacles to clear communication such as prejudice, haste, selective perception, inadequate vocabularies, and ego. As communicators we must do everything we can to think and speak honestly, clearly, and persuasively. But let’s be fair: in a two-way symmetrical discussion both parties have an equal opportunity and responsibility to communicate as best they can. In the classroom that means also exercising our powers of listening carefully and actively, both as students and as teachers.

It puts me in mind of a situation I saw as a college student in which a group in the back corner chattered amongst themselves while our professor reviewed the class for an exam. When he was finished and began putting his things away, one of them protested that he had spoken too fast: could he repeat what he had said? “No,” said the teacher simply, and shrugged. “You’ll have to learn to listen faster.”

Being Exemplary


“Throughout history the exemplary teacher has never been just an instructor in a subject; he is nearly always its living advertisement.”
— Michael Dirda, Book by Book

I leapt at this phrase when I first read it in Dirda’s spry little ‘commonplace’ book. It fit my Puritan work ethic and it assuaged the residual guilt that plagues most teachers. This could be the answer to that recurrent nightmare, the one where we are exposed by our students as imposters, pipelines simply carrying the information, subject to any crank that wants to interrupt the flow with a question.

Of course, the analogy to the teacher as advertisement is not without its problems. Advertisements are there solely to sell us stuff that we don’t want and certainly don’t need. Advertisements lie—that is their modus operandi—and they are almost always flogging trivial stuff like mouthwash, Doritos, and Lincoln Navigators. Advertisements clog the airwaves, occupy every visible surface, and reduce the wisdom of the world to slogans. Teachers are not advertisements.

But there’s another way to regard this. Years ago cultural critic and media theorist James W. Carey wrote a seminal essay in which he distinguished two historical views on communication ( One was the transmission model in which communication functions to loft messages long distances and exercise power over others from afar. It works well when we text message our friends or fire a missile or take out an ad in the Washington Post. It is at work when we channel the textbook in our classes or lecture without regard for where the shells we lob are landing.

The other form of communication is ancient; it predates literacy and springs from the impulse to commune with others. It gathers in rather than disseminates, pulls us into a circle of stories around the fire instead of blasting the masses, and works from the inside to the outside. Symbolic, ritualized, it is the way a society defines, maintains, and sustains itself. It is thought embedded in action, the Word made flesh. The message is not simply carried in the shell of the advertisement: it is rather—to ruffle McLuhan’s hair—the message as the medium.

Thus, when we imagine ourselves professing before our classes, do we see ourselves as these exemplary sages who at the very least convey an enthusiasm for the subject that can enthrall even the back rows? Probably not, and rightly so.

The best teachers among us wear the mantle lightly. They seem innocent of it, as unconscious as breathing. When complimented they may be startled or slightly embarrassed or just a bit uncomfortable. This hints at the idea that teaching well is not a technique (from tekhne, ‘art or craft’) applied from the outside but the result over time of allowing our natural curiosity to partner with our desire for communion with others. When we tell the stories around our particular fires with
enthusiasm (from en theos, ‘in god’), we transcend our egos if only for a moment. We lose the weight of being ‘the teacher’ and we truly ‘profess’ what we know and love.

This “innocence” is not something we can strive for, however. It arrives unannounced, a blessed byproduct of knowledge, love for the subject, familiarity with the process, and experience in handling groups of students. In those moments we become the embodiment of what we say, a living word. On a cold Monday morning we can be so lucky.

Curiosity As a Learning Device

In 2006, a year after the latest remake of King Kong, Curious George finally came to the screen. Curious George, in the books by the husband and wife team, Margaret and H. A. Rey, has given generations of parents a new look at the world. Through George’s wondering eyes the world is a fascinating place of nooks and crannies, things to explore, people to upset.

We seem to have a deep suspicion of curiosity. People who are curious provoke our irritation: they poke around in other people’s business and show scant regard for the niceties of social interaction. They seem to come in at least two varieties. There are the ones who blunder and crash their way through life, yanking up growing things to look at the roots or fiddling with wires and buttons until something goes boom!

These are the ones that high-school chemistry teachers fear, the recurring nightmare of the disheveled, relentlessly cheerful 10th grader whose string of disasters usually begins with the line, ‘Heh, what would happen if I put this junk into this other stuff?. . .’

The other group grows up to become mystery writers, investigative reporters, engineers, scientists, teachers and artists. Theirs is often a more solitary form of curiosity worked out in a lab or a studio, a coffee shop late at night, or the wells of thought deep within the soul.

If the first group survives into young adulthood they have every chance of landing in the front ranks of the professionally curious, perhaps as cops or detectives or munitions experts, vulcanologists and sky-diving instructors.

But Curious George delights us in part because he reminds us of ourselves—before we learned that curiosity could lead to punishment. Somewhere in the long tunnel that is American education the curiosity of many students was asphyxiated. Maybe it was too much visual stimulation and not enough imagination, or a shrinking attention span, or textbooks that piled on useless information. Whatever the causes, many students simply lack curiosity about what they study.

Okay, I’ll grant you there isn’t much time left for wonder in the average student’s day when the first priority is what must be done to pass the course. Pragmatism and efficiency are the watchwords: students find the shortcuts and they don’t waste time in speculation once they see the assignments list. Get in, get the job done, and get out seems to be the modus operandi. That’s great if you’re part of a SWAT team but it’s not so good if you’re trying to synthesize ideas. That’s a higher order of thinking and reflecting that takes some time to acquire. But simple curiosity as to how the world works is the beginning of learning.

John Gardner, novelist, poet, and writing teacher, suggested to his students that they watch the edges of the action, the people at the periphery. That’s where the real story unfolds, he said, in the shadows with the people most often overlooked. Everyone sees the figures in the spotlight—no surprises there. But what does the guy operating the spotlight think? Does he pride himself on hitting the mark exactly right, night after night, as the singer takes to the runway and drops into the crowd?

"Consider the lilies," said Jesus. They toil not nor do they spin, but who are the people who raise them, harvest them, and send them to market? Look at your stapler, a humble device to be sure. Where do the staples come from? What is the tensile strength of the wire that is used? And what a great design idea to put that little spring-loaded thingie at the back that thrusts the staple train forward!

Remembering that ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ we are also reminded that cats have upwards of nine lives, the better to indulge their curiosity, no doubt. I would hope for my students that they become—and remain—curious. It’s the door to possibilities that lift the spirit and the mind.

Why Writing is Hard


“Writing is hard work. . . .If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well

“How long do you want this paper to be?”

It’s an irritating question from a student. It assumes that the subject assigned can be measured out like twine and cut to the desired length. But even worse, it puts the burden of responsibility on you, not the student. The student is merely the supplier trying to fulfill the customer’s order.

That order can be filled by copying and pasting, pulling together a quilted arrangement of unattributed quotes, stitched throughout with a few original but insipid transitional sentences. Or if the hour is late and the need is high a paper in the proper style and length can be bought.

The machinery for grinding out such fodder is well-oiled, maintained with precision, and apparently provides a lucrative return-on-investment for the entrepreneurs in the business. Despite and other means of sniffing out such chicanery, upwards of 50 percent of students cheated and plagiarized in 2002, says Donald McCabe, an expert on cheating from Rutgers. That percentage has dropped ten points recently, but many universities are installing anti-plagiarizing software, anti-cheating hardware, and student-monitoring devices in classrooms.

We can look at this another way. While the outcome may be framed as plagiarizing or cheating, the context in which this plays out can lead to other conclusions. People act out of character when they are afraid or unsure; they try to reduce the odds of failure by any means necessary. If they’re afraid of writing they’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

Writing is hard, says William Zinsser, and he should know. During a career as a journalist, critic, editor, and teacher he has written over 15 books, many of them on writing. His best-known, On Writing Well, now over 30 years in print, has been revised, updated, and expanded through four editions. Each time Zinsser returns to it he reworks, rewrites, and cuts. What makes it so hard? Making it simple, making it clear.

He points to Thoreau’s Walden as a model of plain and orderly simplicity. On every page we see the deliberate and patient stride of the celebrated walker from Concord who rid his life of clutter by reducing it to the essentials. And we, says Zinsser, can free ourselves from clutter by thinking clearly. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing,” he says. “One can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.”

E. B. White agreed in The Elements of Style, saying, “Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Writing is hard because clear thinking is hard. This is a surprise only to those whose writing originates from their inner mud-puddle. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” says the Tao Te Ching. Simplify and clarify.

Which brings us back to the question we began with: “How long do you want this paper to be?” They are the words of someone acutely aware that the teacher holds most of the power in the classroom. They are the words of someone trying to minimize pain and maximize benefit. Someone who has learned to hide a lack of meaning behind a pile of clutter.

At times, as a teacher, I have answered that question with Sphinx-like equivocation: ‘How long? As long as it takes to make your point persuasively.’ There is a cloud of assumptions behind that answer. It assumes that the student knows a persuasive answer from a hole in the ground. It does not show that writing is a process. And it can encourage the confusion of length with erudition and spontaneity with creativity.

If we want students to write well we need to help them learn several things. First, clear writing is a product of clear thinking. Second, clear thinking usually begins as a social process of ideas thrown together, pressed down, shaken up, and poured out. Third, clarity and simplicity emerge through subtraction, not multiplication. We get to the meaning of the idea by throwing away everything that doesn’t advance the story. Finally, all of this takes time. Simple is harder because simple takes time. Better to do one long paper well than to do three short ones badly.

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter," said Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, in a letter to a friend.

And with that gentle reminder I shall cease.

The Diverging Road


In the course of teaching for over twenty-five years I have sometimes met students who suffered from an excess of interests. Not that being curious about life and wanting to follow many different roads is wrong—far from it. But for these students the thought of tying themselves down to a particular major and a specific employment track is agony. There is a lot of pressure on them to conform, too. Parents look at the tab running up at the Student Accounts office and wonder what their hard-earned money has to show for it. Friends who are less encumbered by curiosity and more disposed to follow a single childhood dream nod and make sympathetic noises, but privately shake their heads. Teachers look askance at a fifth-year senior who gives no indication of settling into a prescribed course of classes leading to graduation.

In talking to these students it is clear that they are not without goals and motivation. On the contrary, they have many goals and they are highly motivated. What is particularly difficult for them, however, is the idea that going down one road shuts them off forever from traveling on other roads. At this point Robert Frost’s poignant words chime in: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.”

In three phrases Frost tugs at some assumptions we hold. The first is that choices are more or less forced upon us; roads diverge and we must choose. The second is that the less traveled road is more interesting. Or maybe it’s that we want to be thought of as the interesting person who took that road. And the third assumption is that it matters immensely. It matters so much that we might as well chant, “This is the first day of the rest of my life.”

There are two schools of thought on this. The first, which I call the apocalyptic, says that every decision has ultimate significance. No act is trivial, all are of equal importance, but some decisions—like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm—are more equal than others. There is no time for experimentation, no room for mistakes. Every decision implies a judgment.

The other perspective is the dynamic one. In this view, most decisions have a cumulative effect rather than an immediate one. A slip here, a missed opportunity there—over the course of time it adds up—but each day we are given a new start with new possibilities. It’s not that this perspective encourages recklessness or irresponsibility, either. People who believe this show up for appointments, pay their bills, and make plans for the future. But they do so believing that we define the significance of our moments instead of the gusts of history. It is a modest view of one’s role in the world, for who can know what history will judge as the liminal points of our time? Instead of the tyranny of future expectations they are intent on doing their best in the possibilities of the present. Think of it as a light-footed dance instead of a stolid march.

Thus we circle back to our assumptions. Diverging roads bring us what William James called a ‘forced option:’ we have choices but they are limited and we cannot not choose. Not choosing is in fact having made a choice, James reasons, and asks whether we wouldn’t rather do our best with what we’ve got. The second assumption is that the less familiar is the more interesting, a natural result of curiosity and blissful ignorance. But the whole game rests on the third assumption that everything we do has eternal significance and either impels us forward to the finish line or sends us sprawling far short of the mark.

But there are no straight lines in life, at least none we can see from beginning to end. We ride on a wave of rising ellipses, up and back and down, but ever forward through our moment of time. On the way we carry the certainty of death inside the travel pack of our present. Traveling in this way demands reason and patience, but it also calls for courage and hopefulness. When the road diverges, as it must, gather your true self in the moment and follow the you you want to become.

Lessons Learned


We learn some lessons in the odd moments between efforts to remember. I once worked for a tough and wise old woman who had a beautiful garden and a greenhouse full of orchids. She’d grown up in Hawaii and was now living in retirement after decades of teaching. She lived in Northern California in the hills above the Napa Valley, just a half mile through the pines from my house. I was twelve when she hired me for the summer to “help” her in her extensive garden. She paid me two bucks an hour and taught me a lot about gardening and learning.

Here are some lessons she taught. First, a plant is a lot tougher than it looks. Take grass, for instance. You can freeze it, burn it in the sun, tramp all over it, drop all manner of junk on it, and scuff it up all day—and it still comes up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Give it a bit of water after a long drought and it’s there and green in a couple of days. Not given to sentimentality my boss attributed this to its will to survive. “If you really want something,” she said, “you’ll put up with a lot to get it.”

One morning when we were yanking out ivy from around the base of an oak tree, she paused, wiped her brow, and said, “A plant out of place is a weed.” I could see how that applied to ivy and trees—vines can kill a tree in time. But later in the day, when I was weeding out a rock garden on the side of the hill I came across a fragrant lavender plant springing up amongst the ice-plant spilling over the rocks. “What about this one?” I called. “Rip it out,” she said. “If it’s not ice-plant it doesn’t belong.”

Later in the summer she actually let me in the greenhouse while she tended her orchids. She had a sumptuous collection, gathered from exotic places all over the world. Each was labeled, given a space, and carefully monitored. Every one of them got exactly what they needed to flourish. She knew their differences, their quirks, their reactions, and she treated them like individuals. I knew she was leaving in a month and would be gone for six weeks. And I knew she was counting on me to care for the orchids while she was gone. I watched while she moved quickly and decisively from one to the other, clipping here, watering there, sniffing and peering under the blossoms on another. I wondered how I was ever going to learn enough to keep them going, much less to flourish. “It takes time,” she said, as if she were reading my thoughts. “Time and patience. Let them teach you. They’ll tell you what they need.”

I learned a lot that summer about caring for a garden and in the years since I’ve reflected on the lessons my gardening sage gave me. Students, like grass, are resilient and adaptable. Give them what they need and they’ll overcome almost any obstacle. But there’s no need to put more obstacles in their way just to see if they’re tough enough.

A plant out of place is a weed and should be torn out by the roots. On this one I respectfully decline my sage’s advice. Perhaps, if we really must have uniformity in a garden, this is an option rather than a necessity. But applied to students? No. A student out of place is probably a first-year student. Like grass they can be resilient but like orchids they need time and patience in order to flourish.

And finally, we can learn what students need in order to thrive—if we’re patient and pay attention. We need patience and time because there aren’t many rules that apply to everyone in every place and time.

We learn best by doing, said John Dewey, an idea my boss refined and focused. She explained the concept while she demonstrated and then stepped back; now it was my turn. I worked at it, sometimes making mistakes, sometimes getting it. If I got it right I had to explain the process that worked. If I got it wrong I had to figure out where the process had broken down. Watch . . . listen . . . do . . . explain. Repeat as needed.

Oh, and by the way—I didn’t lose a single orchid while she was gone.

Freedom as Motivation


“Unless the pupils are continually sustained by the evocation of interest, the acquirement of technique, and the excitement of success, they can never make progress, and will certainly lose heart.”

There you have it— the prescription for student success from one of the Grand Masters of education, Alfred North Whitehead (1929, p. 38). Of course, there’s much more to what he said in The Aims of Education, a collection of lectures and essays first published in 1929. But in an elegant phrase or two Whitehead reveals the process and the affective and cognitive parts of learning. Interest, technique, and success or, from another perspective, motivation, disciplined learning, and assessment.

What creates motivation in a student or in any of us? The literature is voluminous and sometimes inspiring. The contrast is drawn between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, between external rewards and punishments and the upwelling joy of discovery. Whitehead’s trenchant observation is that “Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension. You may endeavor to excite interest by means of birch rods, or you may coax it by the incitement of pleasurable activity. But without interest there will be no progress” (p. 31).

Where does the interest come from and how can we fan that flame? The general take on motivation is that it’s there—we just need to know where to look and how to release it. Raymond Wlodkowski says “Motivation is the natural human capacity to direct energy in pursuit of a goal” (1999, pp. 7-8). The approach is like that of an amateur electrician: connect the right wires and the lights will come on. It might take several tries and rude shocks, and the process might blow a few bulbs, but once the connection is made it can be maintained.

But motivating students is far from simple. We don’t exactly know all the influences on motivation nor can we always accurately track the line from motivation to behavior. Whitehead notes that, “It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative” (p. 35). That’s the Catch-22: as soon as we try to harness the interest all the energy sags but without direction the interest itself soon dissipates. A balance can be found, said Whitehead, between freedom and discipline. The student begins in wonder and freedom—Whitehead called it ‘romance’— proceeds to a disciplined ‘precision’ and gradually achieves ‘generalization,’ the ability to weave the details into broad principles of application.

That is the process he advocates from elementary school to university but he also sees it built in to every lesson and unit along the way. Romance. . . . precision. . . . generalization. The joy of discovery. . . . the precision of the facts. . . the application to general principles. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-off end of education,” he says. “The pupils must be continually enjoying some fruition and starting afresh—if the teacher is stimulating in exact proportion to his success in satisfying the rhythmic cravings of his pupils” (p. 19).

While Whitehead cursed the ‘dullards’ who would crush wonder in the student, he was equally stern with those who shoveled dead facts on students in hopes that the sheer weight of knowledge would benefit them. “A certain ruthless definiteness is essential in education. I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. . . . Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it” (p. 36).

I read those words years ago in graduate school but they went right over my head. Concerned as I was to grasp facts, knowledge, the whole load at once, I missed the implications. I reread Whitehead recently and his words went right through me. I’d like to do over every class I taught in which I quelled wonder in favor of precision or pushed students to application before they had grasped the tools of precision and knowledge.

Can we motivate students? No, not if they aren’t interested. Can we interest them? Yes, if we connect our interests to theirs, show them what can be done, and let them do it.

Our role is simple says Michael Theall: we are “to create situations in which others provide their own motivation to succeed” (1999, p. 1). Whitehead agreed, “But for all your stimulation and guidance the creative impulse towards growth comes from within, and is intensely characteristic of the individual” (p. 39).

If we build it well they will come with eagerness, each in their own way.

Theall, M. (1999). Editor’s Notes. In Michael Theall (Ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 1-3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: Macmillan Company.
Wlodkowski, Raymond J. (1999). Motivation and Diversity: A Framework for Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 78, 7-16. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

A Community of Privilege


I was raised by my grandparents, both of them teachers, and I lived with them in Canada on the campus of a private, church-based college and at Pacific Union College in California, until I graduated, got married, and moved to British Columbia.

I have benefited from living on or near college campuses most of my life. The rhythms of the school year are as natural to me as the seasons, and the peculiar blend of exhilaration and weariness that accompanies faculty life are second nature to me.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of sneaking into the back of my grandfather’s European history classes and watching newsreels of the Second World War, or being tossed—giggling with glee—from one brawny college kid to another up on the college farm in Canada as they were bringing in the hay. Later, at Pacific Union College in California, I witnessed a succession of my grandparents’ former students coming through our home every summer. I listened as they talked and laughed with my grandparents, as they proudly introduced their children (with whom I then got to play), and as they sometimes wept, recalling classmates who had died or incidents in their own lives.

Without fail, before they stood to leave, these former students would turn to my grandparents and thank them for the years of learning and mentoring they had enjoyed. Both of my grandparents had been deans, both had been librarians, and both had been teachers—so the kinds of learning their students had experienced from my grandparents had been varied, both in content and in venue. But the bond between student and teacher was evident even after all the years. Inevitably, after these families had driven away from our home, built high up on the mountains overlooking the Napa Valley, my grandparents would turn from waving goodbye and head back into the house to reminisce about their students.

We are shaped, to a large extent, by our early experiences, and we take our cues for situations in life from the experiences of the past. My grandparents’ lives were certainly shaped by their years of teaching and it was fortuitous, although not inevitable, that my life would be shaped by those years with them. Now, all these years later, I can appreciate how privileged my upbringing was. All the resources of a college campus were at my disposal as a kid. Professors, janitors, college students, cafeteria and bakery staff —all were my friends. It was never in doubt whether I would—or could—go to college. I came of age just north of San Francisco in the sixties—and the currents of politics, popular culture, the struggle for civil rights, and the agonizing spectacle of the Vietnam War were what I lived and breathed. My son, for whom the Sixties are the Dark Ages, wonders how I survived without iPods, cell phones, computers, Star Wars, and U2. I managed—somehow.

Now, as I listen to the stories students tell of how they are the first of their families to go to college, or their casual talk of friends or relatives who are the victims of violence, or the many ways the American uber-culture clashes with their parents culture and languages, I marvel at their determination. I had it so easy by comparison. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed of the privileges I had growing up. But I do realize how deep and how pervasive the roots of racism are in our culture, and how many of the benefits of my middle-class upbringing are things almost out of reach for many young people these days.

This is one of the reasons why students and teachers need each other—to flourish within this community of privilege so that we can make a difference to those without community. The possibility of learning and the community that supports it ought not to be squandered or taken for granted. It is a gift that changes us in the receiving.

Knowledge Base


“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” somebody once said. I was reminded of this one Thanksgiving when I was 16 and my college-age cousin came over for dinner. What he had learned in one semester of General Psychology and Intro to Political Science was astonishing. It overturned all our cherished notions of human development and social organization. It rewrote the history of Western Civilization and set Hegel, Freud, and Rousseau on their collective little ears.

I learned so much that day, not the least of which was the intoxicating lure of knowledge pursued for its own sake. What my cousin lacked in perspective he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Some years later, doggedly but joyfully trying to swim through a sea of Greek verbs and nouns, I learned that the ‘enthusiastic’ were those who were ‘in God,’ caught up, as it were, to the heavens.

Confucius, master teacher that he was, believed this is the kind of energy necessary to learning. He declared that if he held up one corner of a handkerchief and a prospective student didn’t come back with the other three corners, he couldn’t teach that person anything. Now that’s an entrance requirement.

By the time first-year students arrive on campus they have already endured 12 years of noble experimentation in building a knowledge base. Much as in the world of corporate finance some of this knowledge has come through mergers (biology and chemistry), some through hostile takeovers (addition, division, multiplication), some as a result of downsizing (this is all you need to know for the test), and some through acquisition (this is good for you).

And now they are in college where the possibilities for increasing that knowledge base may seem both daunting and exciting. And perhaps for the first time as working learners they will be asked to focus, narrow, limit and direct their knowledge acquisition. People will ask them, by way of conversation openers, “What’s your major?” or “What are you planning to do with that?”

Those questions come from a desire to know them, to add to someone’s knowledge base the equivalents of name, rank, and serial number. They begin to be defined by what they know—and don’t know—a curious rite of passage into adulthood that seeks to categorize by the lowest common denominator. What we don’t know can be seen as a weakness and so we try to deny, cover up, and otherwise bluff our way through life. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Confucius counseled humility. Come to knowledge acquisition with a humble spirit, an open mind, and boundless enthusiasm. Better yet, realize (make real) that knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, the tempering that comes through experience applied with humor and compassion. The author of Ecclesiastes, his constant tone one of irony and rueful skepticism, does not sneer, however, when he urges us to ‘get wisdom.’

The role that teachers are called to play in all this is simple. As Robert Grudin says in The Grace of Great Things, “The fundamental motive of true teaching is the love that seeks and studies and performs. True teachers not only impart knowledge and method but awaken the love of learning by virtue of their own reflected love.”

We might, as teachers and learners ourselves, feel caught up to the third heaven of the joy of learning. Rejoice in that feeling! On the other hand, we may find ourselves, like Dante, feeling our way through a dark wood with no idea where in Hell we are. We may rejoice in that feeling too, for we are not lost. We are on the brink of discovering how boundless the world is and how rich the experience of those who enter into it with joy and humility.

Entering the Cave


“I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.”
— Howard Gardner, 1999

If you browse around Facebook a bit you might be accosted by an application challenging you to test your IQ. It pulls a few friends from your list and assigns them labels about their intelligence. You come at the end of a descending line and the implication is that you’re a moron if you don’t take the quiz. That’s okay: if it means avoiding a plethora of notifications and sidebar advertisements, I’m happy to be the moron.

While we’re fascinated with intelligence it’s usually the first thing we denigrate when ridiculing others. My own highly subjective research suggests that readers’ comments online about their fellow respondents’ intelligence become personal and even vicious after about 10 entries. It’s illuminating to graph out the trajectory of these ad hominem comments. You’d think we were a nation of amateur jihadists, ready to kosh each other upside the head at the slightest deviation from conformist bloviating. But not to worry—this won’t be another rant about the coarseness of public discourse.

Howard Gardner has been exploring intelligence for the whole of his career and has made the concept of multiple intelligences part of educational conversation since 1983 when Frames of Mind, his first book on the subject, was published. In a chapter published in 1999 he gives educators and parents a view into how his multiple intelligences (MI) approach can work in the classroom.

Students do not arrive in the classroom with blank slates for minds nor can they be measured by a single axis of intellectual accomplishment. They are the sum total of their experiences to that moment and they apprehend and comprehend the world through multiple intelligences. The problem for the educator is how to effectively teach students who learn in very different ways. Gardner believes it’s complicated but not impossible. On the contrary, MI offers the teacher various ways to reach all students.

He holds that every person should master a core set of ideas, although he’s not going to dictate the canon. But to penetrate to those ideas—and to fully understand them—we need to provide students with an opening to the cave. Gardner’s begins with entry points, six of them, that correspond to his multiple intelligences.

Narrative, quantitative/numerical, foundational/existential, aesthetic, hands-on, and social—there’s something here for everyone. An entry point to the idea of evolution for the hands-on approach might be the breeding of generations of fruit flies while for the students who ponder the foundational ‘bottom-line’ questions, what evolution implies about human nature is what draws them across the threshold. The entry point ushers students into the disciplinary arena, arousing their interests, and forming commitments to thinking—the phase that Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘romance’ of learning.

But while the entry point draws in the student it does not specifically help with understanding the idea. For that Gardner uses analogies, the second step in the process. Analogies help us link the unknown with the known; we learn about the new by making connections to what we already understand. We can see an analogy to evolution in the way that a character matures in a book or changes in the course of a film. The way a river adapts over time to its changing landscape is another analogy that can easily be understood. There is a caution to using analogies, however, in that not all the parallels are helpful or even true.

Now we come to the crucial educational question: How can knowledge of individual differences (MI) be used to convey the core ideas in a reliable and thorough manner? How can we tailor multiple approaches to a common core so that each student understands the material in the way best suited for that person?

Gardner puts it this way: “The key step to approaching the core is the recognition that a concept can only be well understood . . . . if an individual is capable of representing that core in more than one way, indeed in several ways (Gardner, 1999, p. 163).” We know a thing well if we can explain it several different ways.

What would it take for a learner to grasp a core idea in this way? First, it takes a significant amount of time (think depth rather than coverage). Second, the teacher needs to portray the topic in a variety of ways—hands-on, social, aesthetic—so all facets can be enjoyed and understood. There are multiple ways in to the cave for those coming to the entrance from different locations. And finally, it’s helpful if the students have a number of ways to express their understanding and application of the ideas. For one it might be an essay exam, for another a presentation, and for still another a demonstration in front of the class. We learn by doing, said Dewey, and Gardner would agree.

As attractive as this may be, one can hear the sighs. How would you teach this way to 80 or 100 students? Who could keep up with the grading? Who has time to individualize a course for each student? Gardner makes reference to technologies that can help tremendously, but he’s not naïve about the effort involved. Yet, educators are constantly tinkering with the process, he says, because they fervently believe—as he does—that education must ultimately enhance human understanding and help to ‘chart the human possibilities.’ Wouldn’t that be worth working for? Maybe, just maybe, an understanding of core ideas in this way could mean a more intelligent and humane commentary after the news of the day.

You think?

Gardner, Howard (1999) in Reigeluth, Charles M. (Editor). Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Vol. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
General information and a synopsis of Gardner’s work can be found at Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008) 'Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences', The Encyclopedia of Informal Education,

Times Wingéd Chariot

I went to a library book sale not long ago and it made me melancholy. The opportunity to browse over used books usually fills me with a quiet glee for the treasures I might find there. I’m almost always rewarded with one or two books I’ve been looking for that I like to think have been waiting for me.

I constrain myself by several rules so that I’m not simply warehousing more books. First, no hardbacks unless they’re cheaper than the paperback edition. Second, only buy what can be clutched in one hand. And finally, keep the total under $10. Having fulfilled the conditions and dutifully heading toward the cash register, I paused near a rolling cart full of books of educational theory, sociology, and psychologies of human development. That’s when the melancholy crept up on me.

A bit of context might help to explain this condition. I grew up on college campuses because my guardians, my grandparents, were teachers and librarians. I spent countless hours as a child in libraries, sitting cross-legged in a quiet corner poring over anything I found that intrigued me. In the late afternoon sun dropping in slant-wise between the stacks of books I could find geography, literature, religion, psychology, myth, history, economics, political science and physics. All these books! All these authors! These were their lifeworks, their precious ideas, concepts they had been exhilarated by and had inspired others with. And now they were dead and their books sat, illuminated by the afternoon sun, catching the dust motes that drifted in the shafts of light. Occasionally, a student would wander through without pausing to read the titles or even to glance up. I wondered if the spirits of those books ever longed to take flight off the shelves, find themselves opened and breathing again, to hear the buzz of ideas and feel the bracing surge of excitement as their pages were smoothed.

So when I see these books for sale it’s a reminder that discovery does not wait, will not be fettered, and all our ideas are conditional. What is the shelf life of these ideas and interpretations? Fifty years? Twenty? In an online conference recently a presenter noted that knowledge in some areas becomes obsolete in 18 months. By the time computer science majors graduate from college, assuming they do so in four years, the information they began with will have been surpassed several times.

And so, like Andrew Marvell, that impatient prelate from the 17th century, I feel time’s wingéd chariot at my back. Maybe it’s because having cleared the year-50 hurdle seven years ago my horizon line is beginning to appear faintly through the fog ahead. Maybe it’s because I treasure the wisdom of the ages and wince when it’s lightly passed over or simply dismissed with a blank look. Or maybe I find myself suffering from vertigo on this bridge to the indefinite future where knowledge and information appear without effort on my computer or iPhone screen.

Shouldn’t we rejoice that the drudgery of gathering facts, the slow accumulation of lines of thought, the tedious totting up of countless experiments has been sloughed off like a snake skin? Why would we want to return to card catalogues, IBM Selectrics, slide rules and protractors when we can move directly to opinion? And opinion is the dominant viral agent in our biosphere. Once released it circles the globe in minutes, leaping effortlessly across borders of race, gender, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, and status. We hear its voice, tinny, sharp, brittle and shrill; indeed, its very name is Twitter, the meaningless chatter that hums through our culture day and night.

But there’s no reason to think this is the twilight of Western Culture. A few million Tweets from teenagers aren’t going to blow the lights out in libraries across the country. One need only listen to the most popular talk shows and read the comments following an op-ed piece or a music review to realize that it’s adults in this country who have cornered the market on vicious and predatory opinion making. Blaming the generational divide for the triteness of popular culture is to ignore the fact that those with the most strident voices usually have the least to say of substance.

No, gentle reader, what found me sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought there in the library was the sense that opinion and the manufacture of it is rushing outward at the speed of light, while the wisdom of thoughtful women and men is dropping like stones to the bottom of the sea—and I wonder if we are teaching our students how to dive.

To change up the locus of attention in conclusion: Andrew Marvell, in his colorful and sensuous phrases, was urging his coy mistress to give in to the sweetness of love before old age dimmed their eyes and their ardor. Surely we can do no less than to be the lovers of wisdom—philosophia—in our classrooms and laboratories.

Beginner's Mind

It comes as a shock to realize, well into a teaching career, that the more you know about your discipline the harder it is to teach it well. So says Dr. Eric Mazur, physicist, Harvard professor, and an educational innovator who developed peer instruction in the early 1990s. And though the inverse may not be true (the less we know the easier it is to teach), the truth of what Mazur says should stop us in our tracks. Long after we take a deep breath, walk into a classroom for the first time, and realize that we’re flying on a trapeze without a net, we find out that knowing our stuff may have rendered us incomprehensible to our students.

Another truth is that we teach as we were taught, replicating the best of the teachers we had and avoiding the teaching methods that discouraged, enraged, or simply bored us cross-eyed. And so the practices of generations now gone sift down to our students, most of whom were born after the Berlin Wall toppled. Why is it that the very profession responsible for opening minds, challenging the status quo, and pushing the limits of what is known, is one of the last to welcome change?

To be sure, education as a profession is a perennial whipping-boy—whipping-person?—these days. Reports, commission findings, and investigative articles on the dire state of American education cascade through the media and pile up on our desks. Most of these conclude that somewhere along the trail from the 19th century we lost our edge in the teaching game, that Chinese and Indian students are hard on our heels in engineering and science fields, and the country that put a man on the moon can’t seem to locate Iran on a map.

A recent Newsweek/Intel international poll finds that more Chinese think Americans are still innovators than Americans do. And the poll confirms that Western and Eastern ways of teaching produce different results. To wit: Americans are great at conceptual thinking but apparently tank when it comes to math and science. And now the Chinese, having aced the facts and figures, want to learn how we teach independent and creative thinking to our students.

When we hear students ask, “What do you want in this paper?” we think we know what they mean, but the impulse to whack them lightly on the ear with a rolled-up term paper is sometimes almost overwhelming. It’s that alert passivity, the talent for doing exactly the minimum and no more, that can be discouraging to the teacher for whom critical thinking is the Holy Grail. How do you get across to a student the joy of discovery when he or she is bent on mimicry? How to pry them loose from the notion that if an idea doesn’t have immediate application to an assignment or a job situation then it’s probably not worth considering?

Something is not working in the castle that is American education. But before we leap into the moat or pull up the drawbridge, let’s return to Mazur’s idea about the expert who can’t teach. Peter Senge, in his masterful book, The Fifth Discipline, spends several chapters exploring the idea of mental models. Mental models are what help us perceive the world and interpret it, says Senge. As the models go, so go our perceived realities. We build these models, inhabit them, pass them on to our children, until they become Reality instead of a way to depict a slice of reality. Nothing wrong with mental models, says Senge, unless we forget that they are models. We work inside our disciplines, crossing the threshold daily in from the outside, and knowing, even in the dark, where all the furniture is. Such familiarity can breed contempt for those who struggle to grasp even the floor plan. So the expert who would teach well, says Mazur and others, must learn to think like a beginner as well as an expert. How can we help our students if we can’t regard our disciplines from the perspective of a first-learner? How can our students tell us what they do not understand if they feel intimidated in doing so?

We must become as little children, said Jesus; we must cultivate beginner’s mind said the Buddha. In this context we could imagine what they meant was to see the world anew with fresh eyes, to ask questions both simple and profound, and to do so with the joy of discovery in our minds and hearts.

Every Farm is Different

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

There are many ways to poke people with a sharp stick; here Marx provides one of them. Hearing this sentence for the first time years ago in a course on liberation theology, I was enchanted. The complexity and messiness of the political process could be sloughed off like an old snakeskin: we could skip the cautious questioning and go directly to the barricades! It’s the interpreters against the change agents: wimps vs. superheroes. Not much of a contest when you put it that way.

Marx had a way with words; he could turn a phrase that would ring in the world’s ears for years to come. This one is no different. In a simple sentence he manages to disparage centuries of philosophical thought, subtly undercut the importance of recognizing the perspectives of others, and assert that changing the world is a duty bound to be self-evident.

The Tao Te Ching begs to differ: “Do you want to change the world?/I don’t think it can be done,” says Stephen Mitchell’s luminous translation. But we need not be whipsawed back and forth between these two, for the truth is that interpreting the world changes it. When we perceive and accept the present reality we do so from our limited but personally persuasive point of view. What we perceive we act upon—monkey see . . . monkey do.

Marx had a point, though, and he kept poking the spectators of life with it. Are you in or are you out of the game of life? Are you simply going to observe the roiling turbulence of the world from your safe position and then walk away, smug in the assurance you are above the common rabble? The act of interpretation, says Marx, should move us from inertia to engagement with the world. With our eyes wide open we grasp the world with both hands and change it! He saw a seamless and inevitable movement from awareness of the conditions to revolutionary change. Once I was blind, but now I see—and so does every other person caught in this situation. Together, in lockstep, Marx’s minions would change the world. But that’s where he missed the mark. He got it half-right—awareness triggers interpretation and may lead to action—but he didn’t see that each of us interprets and acts from our needs and according to our abilities. All of us together, changing the world in our own ways.

A myriad of teachers have written movingly of wanting to change the world one learner at a time. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure in “faculty development” it’s that there is no one way to do that. Every classroom is different, every learner is different, every teacher is different. Not so different that they have nothing in common, but different enough that one pedagogy does not fit all.

Wendell Berry, a farmer who writes and a writer who farms, goes to the heart of true individuality in an essay in The Way of Ignorance:

The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it
is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field
on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm.
Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work
the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of
creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal
excuses we call ‘individualism’ but is akin to the holy charity of the
Gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence
and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of
farming, and the farmer must maintain it through the muddle, mistakes,
disappointments, and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and
exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm.

Berry’s persistent theme is the loss to America of the family farm, swallowed in the corporate maw of industrial agribusiness. He thinks of the farmer as an artist, a craftsman, a musician constantly attuned to the creative environment, aware of the subtle changes in soil, wind, rain, slope and sun. The farmer works with the earth, not in spite of it. There’s nothing romantic about it; his farmer is practical, solid, a realist who hopes from the foundation of experience.

If American education is to become fertile ground again it will not be through the commercialization of teaching practices nor the commodification of a student’s vocation (from Latin, vocare, ‘to call’). Change that matters will come when one teacher after another works with students where they are to help them learn how to learn—how to interpret their world for change. Every farm is different.