“I’m not sure you can teach anybody anything”

The other day we received the current issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly, from my wife’s alma mater. I have enough trouble keeping up with my own mail, but the cover headline of the issue, “Diversity Now,” intrigued me. I opened it up and, alas, became distracted by an article on a beloved professor, Barrett Hazeltine, who’s now 84 years old and has taught at Brown since 1959.

My wife remarked immediately, “Oh yeah, everybody loved him.” A Brown senior quoted in the article affirmed, “He’s a legend, is what he is.” (I submit this as proof that Ivy League seniors speak in tautologies and Ivy League copy editors cling to commas as rats to sinking ships — in attempts to make sentences less, well, tautological. And, as is my pattern, my first digression waited all the way until the second paragraph.) Back to the topic at hand…

Two photos of Professor Hazeltine teaching in 1983 are splashed across the first text spread of the article. (I’ve stolen them without scruple to reproduce here.) In the photos it’s obvious that the man is excited, his posture animated and enthusiastic. The caption/pull-quote reads: “Hazeltine constantly checks in to see if he still has everyone’s attention. He tries not to teach, but to fuel students’ desire to learn.”

How strange it is to highlight such a sentiment. It’s not strange because it’s wrong — it’s strange because it’s so obviously right — and so obviously not the norm. It seems like everybody already knows that “fueling students’ desire to learn,” i.e., stoking internal motivation, is inherently more valuable than simply “teaching” — if by “teaching” we mean telling students what they need to know.

Examples flooded my hippocampus:

  • The kindergarten teacher who “takes control” of her sprites by constantly telling them what to do next
  • My eleventh-grade English teacher who told me he didn’t care whether I liked the book we were reading
  • My daughter’s history teacher who assigned six times the reading over a break because students — what? — shouldn’t have any actual breaks from school?
  • The insipid online course on concussions I completed a few weeks ago. A well-meaning guy produced about 30 videos of 90 seconds or two minutes, consisting entirely of his speaking in a well-meaning monotone. (“Students” have to watch each one without skipping ahead, despite the entire transcript appearing below the video so I could read it in about 15 seconds.)
  • The coach who screams at his players, demeaning them each time they don’t perform as he has instructed them — “I’ve told her a dozen times how to do that!”

The surprise isn’t that there’s a Professor Hazeltine; there are lots of Hazeltines. But there are many, many more, orders of magnitude more, who think teaching means requiring students to read something, take notes, and then feed back the right answers.

We know how to make kids memorize stuff, and even to apply what they’ve learned. There are students who are really good with that kind of “teaching,” and when they perform well, we tell them they’re “smart,” we congratulate ourselves, and we laud our schools — nearly all of which, by coincidence, happen to serve the children of parents who were really good with that kind of teaching, too.

We know what makes people successful. Helping kids to be successful is harder that teaching them to be “smart,” but it produces better “learners,” not just better “teachers.” It is well past time for bright people to stop clinging to the one-dimensional kinds of education we had in the past, and to recognize that “fueling students’ desire to learn” serves all of them.

Peter BravermanComment