How We Teach Is as Important as What

How We Teach Is as Important as What

After spending an hour with my students and me in our virtual classroom (in PennMOO) one evening, discussing among other things the form and process of teaching, Jim O'Donnell contributed this pedagogical allegory.
--Al Filreis

From: "James O'Donnell" 
Subject: Mrs. Shoppach
Date: Mon, 17 Apr 1995 00:08:19 -0400 (EDT)

In grade four, Mrs. Shoppach would give us penmanship exercises.  She 
would write a poem on the blackboard in her fine palmer method hand, and 
we had to copy it, in pencil.  The rule was simple:  NO ERASURES.  If you 
erased once and handed it in, you got an F.  Very simple.  
	Now you can see what she was doing with 9-year-olds.  Getting 
them to *slow* down, calm down, control their stray bodily fluids, get a 
little discipline.  Makes sense.  
	So we'd sit there copying, then after a few minutes, you'd hear 
"Rats!" and a kid would crumple his paper and start over.  You had to get 
it 100% erasure-free or you had to come back after school to finish it.
	Now this exercise taught us two very useful things:  (1) 
good penmanship, and (2) truly extraordinary erasureship.  Because, face 
it, you *can't* do "The Village Blacksmith" perfectly every time at that 
age, and it was a *bore*.  So you studied the situation, bought good 
fresh soft rubber erasers, learned to write lightly without pushing 
grooves into the paper, learned to erase carefully around the blue lines 
on the paper without abrading the surface of the paper -- she'd hold the 
paper up to the light and could see where you had abraded it.  So the 
ideal erasure just lifted the pencil mark off the paper and didn't touch 
the *paper* at all.
	Most of us got pretty good at it.  She only caught me once, and 
gave me the only F of my grade and high school careers.  (Kids crowded 
around and cheered, but that's another story.)  I looked at the paper 
with the F on it and did *not* say, "Gosh, I have sinned, I must go and 
mend my ways."  I looked at it and said, "Geez, she's *good*!  I gotta 
get me a better eraser and work on dealing with those crossing strokes 
right at the blue line."  And I did, and she never caught me again.
	Now on long reflection years after, I realized that the genius of 
that teaching strategy was that *both* parts were important and useful.  
It's important to learn how to calm down and write neatly, but it's 
*also* important to learn how to cope pragmatically with unrealistic 
demands on your time and talents.  How good do you *actually* have to 
be?  Which assignments can you short-sheet?  How much of the reading do 
you really need to do?  THOSE are real-life, real-world skills, because 
you're going to be juggling multiple demands forever.  And indeed, in 
that case, the skills of erasureship that we learned were exactly 
congruent with the skills of penmanship -- they helped us *directly* 
produce written work that was neater, cleaner, more legible, etc.  
	My point is the one that I was making in the MOO tonight.  The 
content of what we teach is one thing, but the form in which we teach it, 
the way we manage the classroom and the assignments and the evaluation, 
all those are equally important parts of education.  A chief piece of 
what you do in college is learn how to juggle several courses *and* your 
life without anybody checking up on you.  Now in the classroom, the 
traditional lecture format seems to me absolutely dead; the seminar that 
leads to people going away and writing (for grad seminars, often writing 
them weeks or months later) private little obsessive papers proving how 
smart *they* are -- there's *some* use to this, in that you learn things, 
but the behavior that these practices inculcate is of no use, and in many 
ways wildly counterproductive, when applied to the real world.  My 
challenge to Alph, the Sacred Trotskyite River, is to go on thinking and 
working on how we adjust our practices as well as our content, to 
optimize results.  



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Last modified: Thursday, 20-Jun-1996 13:04:56 EDT