A few years ago I taught a class of fourth- and fifth-graders in order to give the teachers some time to plan together. It was the easiest and best teaching I ever did, and a great example of how a great teacher doesn’t do it themselves but rather creates the conditions for the students to do it.
Each week the students had to learn nine words. The teacher gave them the words on Monday. They looked them up, learned the definitions, and used them in sentences. They came to know these words—in some cases intimately—as they discussed their different meanings in class and the different roles they can play in a sentence, so that by Thursday, when I taught the class, they had each written a story using all nine words.
I presided, as they took turns standing in the center of the room—each one poised and proud—reading their pieces. After each one, the hands went up. Here were some of their comments:
“I really liked the story. I mean, it was a real story. I would like to learn more about the character. The only word that seemed forced was ‘communism.’”
“That was a very nice piece. I want to know what happens. I think you should finish it—I mean not for homework—just, you know, finish it.”
“I liked the efficient way you used ‘tragedy’ and ‘catastrophe’ right at the beginning by using them dramatically.”
“Yes, that was good, but we are supposed to use them so that it is obvious what they mean from the way we use them, and I don’t think tone of voice counts.”
“It has a good plot; I am interested; I want to know more. But the part about ‘rural’ and ‘urban’—that seemed just stuck in there.”
The students were so disciplined that in half an hour we had read and critiqued five stories and one poem. The class almost ran itself. The only thing I “taught” was: “When you use ‘but’ in giving criticism, it erases the part of your sentence that comes before it. Say it again using ‘and.’”
I was impressed by their disciplined approach to literature, even when their own classmates were the authors. I was impressed by the way they were able to give and receive criticism. There was only one moment of slight defensiveness, and it was quickly corrected. They were self-confident and supportive of one another. One of the last comments was from someone who hadn’t had a chance to read:
“This is for everyone. We were supposed to take nine very hard words…”
“Only seven were really hard,” corrected a friend.
“Yes, seven hard ones,” he continued, “and force them into a story. It was really good—well, like, you couldn’t tell that you were doing that. They all sounded like real stories. I couldn’t tell that it was an assignment.”
It was as if every student had been able to do two things at once—to use the words they had just put into their heads, and still to write from the heart. Ten-year-olds have not yet broken themselves down into their component parts. What their classmates think of them, their values, their opinions, what they know, how they feel, are all balled into one.
What does this have to do with great teaching? The great teacher wasn’t even in the room.
He had a great lesson design and part of that greatness was the intention to teach the whole child, not just the basics.
In The Disciplined Mind Howard Gardner says that education involves “motivation, emotions, social and moral practices and values. Unless these facets of the person are incorporated into daily practice, education is likely to be ineffective.”
To function effectively in the world—both in and out of school—a person needs to be skilled at complex problem-solving, self-monitoring, abstract thinking. flexible thought, and holding and manipulating information in working memory.