February 24, 2024

Four Under-Discussed Thoughts on Teaching

While working in Italy recently, I took private tennis lessons with a new coach. That experience led me to think a lot about teaching (and learning). Since I truly believe that all teaching is mano e mano, even when in a classroom setting, these thoughts likely apply to all teaching contexts.

The Fresh Take Epiphany
For context, it’s important to note that I’ve taken tennis lessons over the past few years from approximately ten different tennis pros – some once and others once or twice per week. Early in my first Italian lesson, the new pro urged me to “caress the ball.” “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Torrance, California anymore,” I thought to myself. Whether it was a desire to not embarrass myself, extra focus inspired by a new context, listening really hard to understand the advice being communicated by a non-native English speaker, or the sheer genius of my Italian tennis pro, my tennis playing got six months better in two one-hour lessons. That amount of progress was exhilarating and leads me to think that the perspective(s) gained from a new teacher was critical to my newfound success. My friend Marvin Minsky was fond of saying, “You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.” Perhaps that notion applies to the value of multiple teachers, formal or informal, as well?

Anticipate the Plateau
After my thrilling growth spurt, reality reared its ugly head and I plateaued. While I tried mightily to maintain the progress I made, I would not improve until the fates allowed.

Since life itself is growth and change, teachers should show more grace towards students who experience a plateau and do nothing to impede the next epiphany. It may be difficult to predict the next time the penny will drop. This is wholly inconsistent with pacing guides, standardized curricula, “trying harder,” and entirely human. The artificial expectations of “continuous improvement” are insensitive and likely orthogonal to one’s educational objectives. It may have been Taylor Swift who first said, “Patience is a virtue.”

Listen to the Student
Occasionally, if not more often, the student knows what and how they need to improve. Once the pace and power of my groundstroke improved, I wanted to focus more of the lesson on making the process more consistent. The problem is that the teacher had a different agenda and continuously wanted to cover more content.

When I said things like, “I’m trying to hit that groundstroke more reliably, but you’re now running me from side-to-side. Can’t we just focus on a four dance-step sequence instead of eight?” The teacher would reply, “That’s right. You need to do everything at the same time.” It was nearly impossible for me to convey what I needed as the learner. His curriculum was set.

Practice is Personal
When math teachers and others extoll the virtues of “practice” to justify mechanistic routines, repetition, and drudgery, I find that they not only lack of empathy, but give too little thought to centrality of the learner in learning. Anyone who has invested an effort to understand how one becomes truly great at something knows that the way a musician, athlete, writer, or mathematician “practices” shares little in common with the way in which “practice” is used synonymously with worksheets, mechanics, flashcards, or Khan Academy. 

Effective practice requires a personal, perhaps even emotional investment and engagement in the highly sensitive process of searching for, making, and testing tiny refinements towards a goal. Such internal motivation, effort, tweaks, debugging, and quality assurance testing represents a deeply intrinsic cognitive process that differs wildly from “practice your math facts” or “practice your scales.” High quality instruction requires the provision of what Seymour Sarason called, a “productive context for learning.” 

Learning is not the direct result of having been taught, but it may certainly be impeded by instruction.


Post-script: As is often the case, I finished writing this article only to discover that my friend Alfie Kohn has already covered much of the same ground, if not better. Reading his thoughts on practice is a good idea.