The Art of Teaching – A TED Talk

TED talks usually get prefaced with an authoritative stamp, something about the speaker that qualifies him or her to tell us what’s significant about their take on the topic, and why we should listen, and do more than listen, to take up the banner. Conversely, using emotion, we cater to persuade the audience into a view, while logic and reasoning place last in the power to convince. Often, the speaker tells of their experience, which gives us an idea of their closeness to the subject. We tend to feel, in the same vein, what it was through someone else’s eyes. Rarely, plain facts pull us to conclusion, but they do. Comparing prices is enough to outweigh other attributes when it comes to choosing.

Despite my career in teaching and having earned a certificate in higher education leadership, I never rely on things like that to impress. When I talk of teaching, I mean to rely on plain facts, as if they could be called that. They are, after all, what the learner ought to take away, not the display or the speaker. However, people commonly refer to teaching as an art, and it should be so, because it takes great skill to communicate information to others, especially adults in a group setting. I give you a picture in the mind of a rambunctious class of inquisitive, restless people either transfixed or lost by the teacher. The teacher juggles a compendium of responsibilities: keeping the lecture alive, overcoming noise, attending to interruptions by know-it-alls and serious question-askers, and doing it all at length and on time. Before even this, the teacher has prepared the space to bring context, relevance, and immersion. A teacher labors just as hard toward comprehension as a welder, chef, or athlete works toward a finished product or goal.

I heard it preached, about Christ being called teacher, that the Greek for teach meant, “to cause another to understand”. If true, that’s a high bar, for we frequently think of a cause as a quite mechanical thing, a basic law, such as if you push a glass of milk off the edge of a counter, it will fall, or if you drink alcohol, you become disoriented. But the results of teaching are far from clear, the mind of a student far from merely being caused to understand, so populated not with billiard balls of thought so much as waves or clouds of it. Yet, the teaching profession has only recently gained the benefit of the science of learning. True, pedagogies or methodologies of teaching fill books, yet how tested, like recipes in the kitchen, are they to produce intended results? How likely is a learner to walk away from the session changed in such a way that the information stays with them indefinitely? That would be the test.

If you follow this line of reasoning, the need for preparation, organization, showmanship, dominance, leadership – in a nutshell, managing the total class environment – becomes seemingly clear. When people refer to telling a story, the connotation is that it is dramatic enough to hold listeners rapt. Let us not forget that a well-crafted story turns on information as much as it does the cadence of delivery, context, and the reciprocal reception of listeners. To teach successfully, the information, in my view, should be spare, pared down to necessities, and not dressed up much. People recall details. Let me give an example.

Imagine explaining night and day to a child. For thousands of years, even the sages and ripe old aged assumed the sun went around the Earth, so this is something we could all pay attention to. Take a ball, big or small. An apple will do. Turn on a lamp and take the shade off. That’s the sun. Stand two fingers on the surface of the ball and rotate it from the light to the dark side. Keep doing it, twist and turn if you have to, to reveal the dynamics of the thing. The sun stands still; the Earth doesn’t. That’s the reality of what we see in the sky as night and day. We stand on a ball that goes around.

Now what facts have I used to explain this? Will the child really understand? They see round toys. They naturally desire to know fundamental answers to everyday questions. You’ve made it fun, yet so simple they could do it on their own. Even as you admire the morning sun while sipping your latte, the relationship of it to the planet could be furthest from your mind, though you would never defend the now unorthodox view that it turns around Earth. So, I suggest that teaching should be based on data, but the data should be utterly relatable. Whether demonstrating physical phenomena or fleshing out a concept, the bare bones data should be the skeleton on which it hangs. Introduce nothing, no metaphor or comparison, that takes away from the message.

How close is this to the science of learning? This is a field with controversial players, including researcher James Zull, who characterized the human ability to learn by borrowing the different functions of areas in the brain coupled with an interconnected model of how we learn, first posed by David Kolb. With wide support, the model provides a sensible base. It goes like this: concrete sources stimulate our senses, which perceive the world. The brain socks this information in neurons, while reflecting on and comparing some with what is already stored. The integrative cortex pieces similar neural paths into a hypothesis which the motor portion of the brain tests, storing the soundest theories in a hierarchy that makes truth in the mind, and discards certain held beliefs due to their lack of a good fit, now that better information arrived. Stephen Colbert challenged Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker to sum up what the brain does in 5 words or less. He said, “Nerve cells fire in patterns.” This model has the benefit of characterizing all sensory input as data, even theatre and asides, authority and earnestness. Armed with a memorable lesson, the brain seeks out supporting information. It attempts to fill gaps. As it learns something new, the brain is abuzz, generating new cells and paths, strengthening and growing its network.

Good explanations do not merely reduce mysteries to game show trivia, nor do they simply enrich lives with profound knowledge. They inspire connected thoughts that cause people to adapt, to change behavior, frequently for the better. With useful, repeatable knowledge, life improves and society progresses. Like paper chugging out of a copy machine, it rapidly grows and moves through the population, sometimes going viral. In the same manner that it piles up landfills and oceanic gyres, it has the power to correct our collective ills. The lesson of how our world turns on an axis may be a simple one, but its inertia overcomes even our being bound to its surface, such that space travel is becoming safer and more commonplace.

Teaching should not be complicated, but we should never wing it. Teachers need to prepare and pare down the lesson in order to impart and solidly plant the idea. If relating an idea takes repeating it three different ways, so be it.

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