Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Education: Drill It In or Tease It Out?

Teachers who expect more from their students will get better results than those who expect less. This is the core idea in an article, "Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results," by Joanne Lipman, and she'll get no argument from me, there. She uses for example her high school orchestra teacher, who berated students at practice and applauded them for good performances. Grateful and successful students played their instruments at his funeral.

But she couches her insight in an article that seems to extol rote learning above any alternatives, and to deride the notion that knowledge is "teased out" of students.

Granted, when every bow must play the same phrase the same way; when the conjugation of certain verbs must become automatic; when certain formulae are required to solve problems -- then drill is necessary, and a teacher who can motivate students through the tedium is a good teacher.

But it's the experience of every writer, every reader, every mechanic, every physicist or mathematician who ever solved a problem, that knowledge is constructed inside, developed through engagement with some matter, often through collaboration. I do recall memorizing things for a test; but the standout moments in my years of schooling all came when teachers weren't telling me anything. Instead of prescribing and demanding, they simply situated me and my classmates where we had to figure things out for ourselves. When we realized that we needed help, they provided it.

For example, Mr. Leon Scott once asked our Literature class why atheist Hemingway loaded The Old Man and the Sea with Christian imagery; then, Mr. Scott left the room while we puzzled it out. He's the same teacher who required us to write on a topic of our own making about a Faulkner novel of our own choosing, forcing me of necessity to develop lifelong habits of close reading. I'm grateful for an education professor who opened up his library of resources to me and assigned three papers about the three worst problems I faced in my classroom -- and I developed ideas that still guide my teaching.

Is drill the way that we teach reading? Not if we're after appreciation and understanding! I've taught students who could rattle off dozens of prepositions, but didn't apply that knowledge to distinguish Jefferson's main idea in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence from the prepositional phrases around it.  

Is writing best taught by "hard" teachers who find faults? I'd simply observe that "good" writing and "correct" writing are two different things. I wish more teachers and parents knew this! A "tough" writing teacher and I shared a student who, she said, "couldn't write." I rushed to show her something he had written for a test in History class, in which he displayed insight and a creative approach to the question. She read the essay, and commented only on the spelling errors and a run-on sentence. I am eternally grateful that the boy was not present. What good could that comment have done? I see only how discouraged he would be, his good work unappreciated.

Hard teachers emphasize results; good teachers emphasize the process that will lead to results -- though maybe not in time for the end of the grading period.

This debate comes up often. Even a sports ignoramus like me has heard a great deal about the contrast between "tough" Bobby Knight's coaching methods (screaming, abuse, tantrums, drill, drill, drill) and the kinder, gentler methods of Coach K, John Wooden, and "the Zen coach" Phil Jackson. The consensus seems to discredit Knight.

My own mentor, Frank Boggs, taught us so much about music without "drill and kill," without humiliation, without sternness. Our tastes (I speak confidently for my contemporaries, too) were influenced by the New Yorker cartoons and articles that he pinned to his bulletin board, by recordings he played us, by his own example. We learned to watch the conductor when he unexpectedly asked for changes in dynamics and tempo, even during a performance -- and it was exhilarating and hilarious.

Unlike the "tough" teacher in the article, he didn't wait for us to be perfect before he put us onstage; some of us were pretty rough-edged when he gave us our first solos, but that was ok: He was allowing us to grow into poised and confident performers. He certainly told us a lot, but I remember most what he asked. For example, he wondered aloud why Vivaldi sets the comforting phrase "peace on earth, goodwill to men" in a minor key, acquainting us with the idea that music can say something independent of the words.

Mr. Boggs recommended this article to me; I'm glad he hadn't read it when I first walked into his chorale room forty years ago!

Reflection on an article by Joanne Lipman. "Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results." The Wall Street Journal online. September 27, 2013. Ms. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of "Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations," to be published by Hyperion on Oct. 1.

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