Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Note to Self (Yet Again): Teach don’t Tell

I think “teach don’t tell” might have been one of the first pedagogical concepts I truly learned. But for some reason, I forget this lesson regularly. It happens when students have particular problems, when they catch me off the cuff, or when my mind is pursuing another line of thought. Why is telling sometimes my default setting?

I recently caught myself mid-telling. A student committed copy/paste plagiarism in a last paragraph of an essay despite viewing a report that clearly caught the problem before the paper needed to be submitted to me. I discovered it on a Sunday night as I checked the reports for plagiarism. I sent the student an email that pointed out the problem and asked what the student thought when seeing the match on the report. The student emailed me that after looking at the report twice, the student hadn’t noticed any matches. (Right there, in the bright color—see?) The student assured me that had the match been noticed, the student would have been sure to “mix the words up a bit.” Not quite a substitute for full documentation. Sigh. Bite of chocolate.

I wanted to tell the student that all the lessons we’ve done on plagiarism and how to read a report should have prevented this problem. I wanted to tell the student that I did my job; I covered this content in a student-centered, interactive way, thanks very much. I wanted to tell the student that the learning process breakdown most likely happened on the student’s end—forgetting to scroll down and read the whole report, working too late to read carefully, giving in too easily to the challenges of developing a point and resorting to copy/paste to round out a paragraph. Another bite of chocolate.

Bolstered by sugar, I remembered to teach, and I instead asked the student to do these things:

1) Go back and review the excellent answers the you gave on the plagiarism quiz, including:

Even if the information you use is commonly known, if you borrow the exact wording from a source to explain that information, you'll need to use quotation marks and to credit the source. Your answer: True

2) With that fresh information, go back to review the report again.

3) Write down observations and realizations as you look at your report and then share them with me.

The student did it. The student owned the problem and told me if the mistake meant failing the class, then the student understood. Hooray! My news that the essay would need to be done on a new topic came as a relief instead of a great big hammer. Put chocolate away.

When I tell instead of teach, students tell me something right back, usually some version of, “You’re a crazy English teacher lady and you’re wrong about me.” Telling versus telling means nobody listens. Remembering to teach instead of tell bears much better learning fruit.

I think I sometimes tell despite knowing better because some student mistakes strike me as an accusation that I wasn’t clear, that I didn’t do my job well. When I’m not feeling defensive, I realize that’s stupid of me. I think I tell more often when I’m tired or overwhelmed or when the learning process gets sluggish. In the end, I think it’s my humanity butting up against their humanity, and it’s bound to happen now and again. Maybe I’ll just tell myself to relax…where’s that chocolate?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Join the club.You would think that they'd have run out of chocolate by now!
Telling is effortless; teaching requires a little ingenuity and certainly teacher stamina. Those pesky little questions keep popping up and the teaching goes on while telling cuts to the point. It is however revisited often. And so the cycle continues.
What kind of chocolate, did you say?