Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Meta Lesson

[I love the term “meta,” so I hope my readers know it. I’d define it, but you know what? I don’t want to be didactic, and you are better off looking it up yourself. You’ll be more invested in learning it that way. But with any luck, you know it. It's a cool word, an interesting concept.]

Today, I read a great article about teaching expertise and meta lessons in HigherEdJobs.

The article, by Bill Smoot, (it’s actually an excerpt from his book, see link above) is about how the real teaching moments come in between the lessons.

This is what I’ve always believed but never actually articulated for myself.

What is the value of taking a class? The human interaction. The different voices sharing and connecting. It’s not being lectured to (we could watch lectures on YouTube in the comfort of our own homes; we don’t need to trudge across a campus to do this), but it is about listening.

What do we remember of the classes we’ve taken, the subjects we’ve studied?

Often, we don’t remember that much. We may or may not remember our teachers’ names (and I am getting to the point where I’ve had so many students I am temporarily forgetting the names of my first students…but it always comes back to me. I think).

What we remember is how we learned, and how we felt when we were learning.

Was our attention held? Were we put off, and if so, why? Did we pick up any choice bits about life?

That’s what I always remember.

I also remember (now, as a teacher) which students helped steer discussion in a meaningful way, and which students contributed ideas and anecdotes that made me think.

I remember the stories. I remember the points of personal connection.

I also remember what I did wrong, and what I could do better next time.

The article I’ve linked to, though, is also about how great teachers DO, and don’t just talk. The best teachers have done what they are teaching you now.

Let’s be honest: I could teach Geometry if I had to, but I have never used Geometry in real life. Hence, why would you want me to teach you Geometry?

I could teach French, maybe, but my own experiences with the language have to do with learning it in high school and eating French cakes my teacher used to make that I thought were pretty bad (sorry—just being honest. They were bland, buttery, dense bits of sponge that make me feel a little ill in the recollection, although it was very kind of the teacher to try to win us over this way). My biggest “real life” experience with French was the two days I spent in a train speaking in French-English hybrid with a guy I’d just met. That, and trying to have a conversation with my friend Capucine who finally told me,  in perfect English,“It is way too annoying to speak French with you. I cannot possibly speak slowly enough.”

So the point is, I know what I can do well, and I know what I can’t. I expect my teachers to know the same and to teach what they can do, not just what they’ve practiced.

That’s where the best stories come from , anyway—from the things we’ve done.

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