Opioids and Paternalism
To help end the crisis, both doctors and patients need to find a new way to think about pain
What are we feeling when we are feeling joy? And where inside us does that feeling reside?
Emily Fox Gordon
As a writer, with a writer’s chronic need for detachment, I have avoided the ideology of gender
In slowly gentrifying Detroit, you might see a fox, or even a coyote, but where have all the stray dogs gone?
A Jane Austen Kind of Guy
I get it that women find my affinity for their writer intrusive, but her world has much to offer men, too
Our Nuclear Future
We may think the bomb is back, but it never really went away
Elizabeth D. Samet
The scourge of military sexual assault and the warrior’s masculine code
Reading Thoreau at 200
Why is the seminal work of the great American transcendentalist held in such scorn today?
My Mongolian Spot
Jennifer Hope Choi
An ephemeral birthmark is a rare gift, connecting me to generations spanning the centuries
Things Sweet to Taste
Much to my regret, I never truly knew the woman who helped raise me
Goodbye to Westbrook Acres
As a writer walks and muses, the world’s sorrows intrude upon the peaceful streets he will be leaving
A Brief History of Secession
Why Calexit might not be as crazy as you think
On Political Correctness
Power, class, and the new campus religion
How My Italian-American husband ate his way into the good graces of my African-American family
The Cloistered Books of Peru
A convent in the Andes is home to a treasure trove of rare, and possibly unique, early volumes
After a loss from which there is no recovery, I turned to books—not for solace or forgetting, but simply to survive
The Ultimate Pawn Sacrifice
My brother’s life mirrored that of Bobby Fischer, the deeply troubled chess master
“We Must Not Be Enemies”
Progressives who wish for a less reactionary America could begin by trying to understand the Trump voter
Milton Friedman’s Misadventures in China
Julian B. Gewirtz
The stubborn advocate of free markets tangles with the ideologues of a state-run economy
The Life Unlived
On W. G. Sebald and the uncertainties of time
When beavers came between us and a farmer down the road, we knew something more was at stake
A life spent mainly in the company of cats has meant relishing the comforts of domesticity and solitude
Tales From Motor City
Left for dead yet pulsing with life again, Detroit survives as a place of inconsistency and contradiction
The Last Bursts of Memory
As my father’s dementia progressed, the stories of his life became less accurate but more vivid
The Virtue of an Educated Voter
The Founders believed that a well-informed electorate preserves our fragile democracy and benefits American society as a whole
Can the collaboration between a progressive boarding school and a big-city charter academy transform American Public High School Education?
Writing the Unimaginable
When future generations look back at the fiction of our time, what will they make of the failure to address the crisis of climate change?
Put a Bird on It
How did a beguiling South American hummingbird end up in the basement of a Pennsylvania museum?
Death can come at any time, from above or below, but life requires putting fear aside
Thine as Ever, P. T. Barnum
A. H. Saxon
A scholar offers three utterly fictitious letters he wishes the famous showman had written
Little Bowls of Colors
Writing in a foreign language can reveal secrets long buried in our mother tongue
The Taming of the Wild
As we celebrate the centenary of the National Park Service, a meditation on “the best idea that America ever had”
The FBI, My Husband, and Me
What I know now about Ted, whose photographs documented the 1960s, and about J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to label him a Soviet spy
The Truth About Dallas
Howard P. Willens and Richard M. Mosk
Looking back at the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and the controversies that dogged it from the start
The Other Woman
A mother’s devastating secret, and its many reverberations, present and past
A restless traveler finds solace in the quiet beauty of the annual sandhill crane migration
Waiting for Fire
As smoke thickens and ash falls, an esteemed Napa vintner prepares to save his home and livelihood
It’s time for police officers to start demanding gun laws that could end up saving their own lives
Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie
We must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life—here’s how
A New Heaven and a New Earth
During the Spanish Civil War, an alternative vision of society briefly flourished in Barcelona
I Will Love You in the Summertime
Between the rupture of life and the rapture of language lies a world of awe and witness
The Remains of My Days
Fond and fading memories of a robust literary life
Meditation on a Rat
Who would have thought that this unlikely creature could help make a family whole again?
My sweet, gentle parents had their demons, but they kept me safe
Our increasing reliance on drugs—prescribed, over-the-counter, illegal, and ordered online like pizza—suggests we have a deeper problem
How Chemistry Became Biology
And how LUCA, Earth’s first living cell, became Lucas, my adorable grandnephew
The advent of new religions in the 1800s led to fierce debates that persist today
The sensations of landing on the island long ago haunted a writer’s final memories
A Life in Letters
Merrill Joan Gerber
A decades-long correspondence with the Italian writer Arturo Vivante covered it all: hardship, love, and the endurance of art
Where the Heart Is
A grandmother’s life in five moves, from Hitler’s Europe to the American Midwest
The Well Curve
Harriet A. Washington
Tropical diseases are undermining intellectual development in countries with poor health care—and they’re coming here next
The Sweet Briar Opportunity
Carol T. Christ
Small colleges with too few applicants and large universities with too many should work together
Hope Is the Enemy
Caring for a patient suffering from dementia means coming to terms with the frustrating paradoxes of memory and language
The Mysteries of Attraction
Its many splendors do not only include the carnal: animate, inanimate … love it all
Capital of Willows
On a trip to North Korea, a writer remembers his troubled father, a victim of the “Forgotten War”
Test of Faith
The Roman Catholic Church may forgive us our sins—but can it be forgiven for its own?
The Examined Lie
A meditation on memory
Talk of the Town
Robert A. Gross
At the Concord Lyceum, Emerson tried out his lectures on his neighbors
Matters of Taste
A work of literature and a bottle of wine require similar skills of their respective critics
The Wandering Years
The travel journals of a literary icon making his way in the world
My Mother’s Yiddish
The music of my childhood was a language filled with endearments and rebukes, and frequent misunderstandings
Nabokov's profitable summer chasing butterflies and settling scores in the Utah mountains
Sarah Mansfield Taber
A spy’s daughter remembers the haunting unreality of embassy life in South Vietnam before the fall
How to Write a Memoir
Be yourself, speak freely, and think small
The Embattled First Amendment
The Supreme Court is interpreting free speech in new ways that threaten our democracy
A Terrible Loss
Jonathan W. White
Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago turned plans for postwar reconciliation to a frenzy of violence
Kill the Creature
In search of snakes—and the balm of charity and love in a world of infinitely lonely space
Confessing and Confiding
Emily Fox Gordon
Knowing the difference between the two can elevate an essay from therapy to art
Failure to Heal
Today’s medical industry thrives on diagnosing and curing, but it doesn’t reach the soul
Meeting the Mystics
My California encounters with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley
School Reform Fails the Test
How can our schools get better when we’ve made our teachers the problem and not the solution?
Habits of Mind
Anthony Grafton and James Grossman
Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers
What I Have Taught—and Learned
William M. Chace
After 50 years as a professor, I understand that my job is to make students think hard about thinking
As the forest reclaims large stretches of New Hampshire, animals come and go, as do memories of a beloved 19th-century farmhouse
For Better and for Worse
The aftermath of a disorienting divorce
How an American sergeant’s journey through frigid North Russia inspired a work of historical fiction
As the economy gets ever better at satisfying our immediate, self-serving needs, who is minding the future?
Why Science Is Not Enough
Only through our imagination can we know the world
Delusions can occur in perfectly “normal” people
A family escaped the Nazis in 1939, finding refuge in America, but its hardships were far from over
A South African family of privilege kept its secrets
A Tale of War and Forgetting
Rescuing the memory of a cataclysm
The Fear Factor
Long-held predictions of economic chaos as baby boomers grow old are based on formulas that are just plain wrong
4 Popes, 4 Saints, One New Guy
Ingrid D. Rowland
Perhaps you’ve heard the news from Rome. But what does it really have to do with the man from Assisi?
An agnostic sermon
When the Bachelor Girl and the Red Death come calling, are they mirrors for our eccentricities?
Proust Goes to the Country Club
At a largely forgettable class reunion, remembrances of things past
A Prophet Without Honor
There’s no authoritative biography yet for Joseph Smith, the notorious founding figure in Mormonism
Loving Animals to Death
How can we raise them humanely and then butcher them?
What Killed My Sister?
The answer—schizophrenia—only leads to more perplexing questions
We value our solitude until it pinches
The Making of PoBiz Farm
After it became our permanent home, we overfilled it with overloved horses and dogs
The Presence of Absence
Our losses give vitality to our lives
A Whole Day Nearer Now
But all life’s passion not quite spent
Where Are the People?
Evangelical Christianity in America is losing its power—what happened to Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral shows why
My Kingdom for a Wave
If your life as a public intellectual takes you to the highest crests, be prepared for the troughs that follow
My Friend Melanie Has Breast Cancer
Anna Blackmon Moore
How it might have happened, and why we are looking in the wrong places to prevent similar cases
Homeless in the City
A writer describes the decade he has spent living on the streets
Our Farm, My Inspiration
How a weekend getaway became a poet’s muse
My many mentors at Oxford, from Lincoln College to All Souls, linger like spirits in the mind
Emily Fox Gordon
After the excesses of youth and terrors of middle age, a writer faces the contingencies of being old
Driving through postwar Yugoslavia was nearly impossible, but a young poet and his new wife struggled through the desolate landscape to Athens
With purple prose and oversaturated images, National Geographic reimagined postwar America as a dreamspace of hope and fascination
The intimacies shared with our closest companions keep us anchored, vital, and alive
Mortify Our Wolves
The struggle back to life and faith in the face of pain and the certainty of death
Brian Doyle, who died on May 27, considers the capacity of the heart—including his own. Rest in peace.
Rites of Passage
When a quirky old man who lived on the Cape died, I thought I didn’t care
The Complete Zinsser on Friday
Congratulations to William Zinsser, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award in the category of Digital Commentary
William M. Chace
Opposition to affirmative action has drastically reduced minority enrollment at public universities; private institutions have the power and the responsibility to reverse the trend
A Jew in the Northwest
Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon
Dubya and Me
Over the course of a quarter-century, a journalist witnessed the transformation of George W. Bush
LBJ’s Wild Ride
Ernest B. Furgurson
Hanging on for dear life during the 1960 campaign
Vladimir Nabokov's understanding of human nature anticipated the advances in psychology since his day
When I was stabbed 17 years ago in a New Haven coffee shop, the wounds did not only come from the knife
A Mother’s Secret
The images in a treasured photo album preserve an idealized past, while leaving out the painful story of a family torn apart by the Holocaust
Making Sparks Fly
How occupational education can lead to a love of learning for its own sake
In the Orbit of Copernicus
A discovery of the great astronomer's bones, and their reburial in Poland
Plunging to Earth
Once the sport of daredevils, skydiving now offers it existential thrills to grandmothers, pudgy geeks, and even the occasional college professor
The Forgotten Churchill
The man who stared down Hitler also helped create the modern welfare state
Plucked from the Grave
The first female missionary to cross the Continental Divide came to a gruesome end partly caused by her own zeal. What can we learn from her?
Civil Warfare in the Streets
After Fort Sumter, German immigrants in St. Louis flocked to the Union cause and in bloody confrontations overthrew the local secessionists
How Longfellow Woke the Dead
When first published 150 years ago, his famous poem about Paul Revere was read as a bold statement of his opposition to slavery
Interview with a Neandertal
What I always wanted to ask our distant cousins about love and death and sorrow and dinner
‘I Tried to Stop the Bloody Thing’
In World War I, nearly as many British men refused the draft—20,000—as were killed on the Somme's first day. Why were those who fought for peace forgotten?
The View from 90
Even when those in my generation have reached a state of serenity, wisdom, and relative comfort, what we face can hardly be called the golden years
Baseball’s Loss of Innocence
When the 1919 Black Sox scandal shattered Ring Lardner’s reverence for the game, the great sportswriter took a permanent walk
Unauthorized, But Not Untrue
The real story of a biographer in a celebrity culture of public denials, media timidity, and legal threats
Empathy and Other Mysteries
Neuroscientists are discovering things about the brain that answer questions philosophers have been asking for centuries
To Accept What Cannot Be Helped
At 80, a woman with a fatal disease knows she doesn't want to die in the hospital and discovers, with her family, what that really means
Paula Marantz Cohen
After years of favoring the endurance-test approach to teaching literature, a professor focuses on how to make books spark to life for her students
The Passionate Encounter
A noted midcentury critic has much to say in his journal about his fellow writers and the literary world they shared
Restoration of Rome Open city, the director’s masterpiece, prompts a look at why he later retreated from the neorealism it introduced
Prozac for the Planet
Can geoengineering make the climate happy?
Every Last One
A guy with a weakness for demography goes door to door for the census and discovers what a democracy is made of
"Deep Travel" opens our minds to the rich possibilities of ordinary experience
When a tornado tears through a beloved landscape, is it possible to just let nature heal itself?
We’ll Always Have McSorley’s
How Joseph Mitchell's wonderful saloon became a sacred site for a certain literary pilgrim
What the Earth Knows
Robert B. Laughlin
Understanding the concept of geologic time and some basic science can give a new perspective on climate change and the energy future
All Style, No Substance
What’s wrong with the State Department’s public diplomacy effort
Too Bad Not to Fail
William J. Quirk
Just what are derivatives, and how much more damage can they do?
Voices of a Nation
In the 19th century, American writers struggled to discover who they were and who we are
Hive of Nerves
To be alive spiritually is to feel the ultimate anxiety of existence within the trivial anxieties of everyday life
The Bearable Lightness of Being
If you live long enough and contentedly enough in exile, your feelings of estrangement can evolve into a sense of living two lives at once
Solitude and Leadership
If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts
Reading in a Digital Age
Notes on why the novel and the Internet are opposites, and why the latter both undermines the former and makes it more necessary
Nabokov Lives On
Why his unfinished novel, Laura, deserved to be published; what’s left in the voluminous archive of his unpublished work
They Get to Me
A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns
When the Light Goes On
How a great teacher can bring a receptive mind to life
To Die of Having Lived
A neurological surgeon reflects on what patients and their families should and should not do when the end draws near
My Brain on My Mind
The ABCs of the thrumming, plastic mystery that allows us to think, feel, and remember
The Stolen Election
An expatriate Iranian writer travels her troubled homeland in the weeks after a disputed presidential vote
Seventy Years Later
The Second World War destroyed Adolf Hitler, but his legacy is showing disturbing signs of life
The physics and poetics of the search for the God particle
Wrestling with Two Behemoths
A longtime New Yorker, and New Yorker writer, gets the cold shoulder from powerful New York cultural institutions
Writing About Writers
Covering the book beat
The Doctor Is IN
Daniel B. Smith
At 88, Aaron Beck is now revered for an approach to psychotherapy that pushed Freudian analysis aside
A Mindful Beauty
Joel E. Cohen
What poetry and applied mathematics have in common
The Renaissance writers and humanists Petrarch and Boccaccio turned to geography to understand the works of antiquity
A daughter examines a life played out in romantic defiance of bad fortune
Not Ready for Mt. Rushmore
Reconciling the myth of Ronald Reagan with the reality
A blast in Baghdad tests the endurance of a soldier and his family
The Devil You Know
John B. Renehan
Keeping the peace in Ramadi calls for a little moral dexterity
Questioning assumptions about intelligence, work, and social class
What I'd really like to tell the bores in my life
A writer in Quebec finds that language creates an unbridgeable divide
Any Way You Slice It
Sundays at the community oven aren't just about the pizza
He bet cautiously at the track, but elsewhere he was drawn to those with the odds stacked against them
The Terminator Comes to Wall Street
How computer modeling worsened the financial crisis and what we ought to do about it
Evolution does not rob life of meaning, but creates meaning. It also makes possible our own capacity for creativity.
Second Chances, Social Forgiveness, and the Internet
We need the means, both technological and legal, to replace measures once woven into the fabric of communities
The Potency of Breathless
Paula Marantz Cohen
At 50, Godard’s film still asks how something this bad can be so good
The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln
Ernest B. Furgurson
The hatter Boston Corbett was celebrated as a hero for killing John Wilkes Booth. Fame and fortune did not follow, but madness did.
Visions and Revisions
Writing On Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35 years
Dawn of a Literary Friendship
In 1969 the writer Robert Phelps first wrote to the novelist James Salter. Here are the letters that forged a bond of two decades.
The Dowser Dilemma
How a town in Vermont found water it desperately needed and an explanation that was harder to swallow
Putting Man Before Descartes
Human knowledge is personal and participant—placing us at the center of the universe
The Future of the American Frontier
Can one of our most enduring national myths, much in evidence in the recent presidential campaign, be reinvented yet again?
Affirmative Action and After
W. Ralph Eubanks
Now is the time to reconsider a policy that must eventually change. But simply replacing race with class isn’t the solution.
Spies Among Us
Military snooping on civilians, which escalated in the turbulent '60s, never entirely went away and is back again on a much larger scale
A Country for Old Men
Having reached the shores of seniority himself, the author finds a surprising contentment in the eyes of his fellow retirees
The Civil War only enhanced George Whitman's soldierly satisfaction; for his brother Walt, however, the horrors halted an outpouring of great poetry
My Bright Abyss
I never felt the pain of unbelief until I believed. But belief itself is hardly painless.
The High Road to Narnia
C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien believed that truths are universal and that stories reveal them
The Censor in the Mirror
It’s not only what the Chinese Propaganda Department does to artists, but what it makes artists do to their own work
The Torture Colony
In a remote part of Chile, an evil German evangelist built a utopia whose members helped the Pinochet regime perform its foulest deeds
Where Does American History Begin?
Mixing geography with invention, the first explorers and mapmakers made the New World a very hard place to pin down
Something Called Terrorism
In a speech given at Harvard 22 years ago and never before published, Leonard Bernstein offered a warning that remains timely
The New Old Way of Learning Languages
Now all but vanished, a once-popular system of reading Greek and Latin classics could revitalize modern teaching methods
The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers
The End of the Black American Narrative
A new century calls for new stories grounded in the present, leaving behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences
Revisiting the gritty Roman neighborhood of his youth, a writer discovers a world of his own invention
Knitting a new life in America after a mother’s suicide, long ago in Japan
When George Plimpton, the boyish editor of The Paris Review, went three rounds with the light-heavyweight champion of the world
In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master
The Broken Balance
The poet Robinson Jeffers warned us nearly a century ago of the ravages to nature we now face
Passing the Torch
Stephen J. Pyne
Why the eons-old truce between humans and fire has burst into an age of megafires, and what can be done about it
The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass
Honoring the emotions that give life to liberal principles
What Kind of Father Am I?
Looking back at a lifetime of parenting sons and being parented by them
Rome’s Gossip Columnist
When the first-century poet Martial turned his stylus on you, you got the point
Janna Malamud Smith
Like Robinson Crusoe after the storm, a daughter salvages what she can after her mother’s death
A Slow Devouring
Banter, beer, and bar food smooth a disciplined but difficult passage through Finnegans Wake
Who Cares About Executive Supremacy?
The scope of presidential power is the most urgent and the most ignored legal and political issue of our time
Moral Principle vs. Military Necessity
The first code of conduct during warfare, created by a Civil War–era Prussian immigrant, reflected ambiguities we struggle with to this day
Dreaming of a Democratic Russia
Sarah E. Mendelson
Memories of a year in Moscow promoting a post-Soviet political process, an undertaking that now seems futile
The Daily Miracle
Life with the mavericks and oddballs at the Herald Tribune
By limiting freedom of expression, we take away thoughts and ideas before they have the opportunity to hatch
Alone at the Movies
My days in the dark with Robert Altman and Woody Allen
Ann Hagman Cardinal
A young woman wins a drawing and learns to give and to receive
As a beloved uncle makes his final journey in the wilderness, a new life begins
The Cradle of Modernism
From the Autumn 1990 issue of The Scholar
Findings: Meditations on the Literature of Spying
From the Spring 1965 issue of The Scholar
To the Rescue of Romanticism
From the Spring 1940 issue of The Scholar
Melvin Jules Bukiet
Come with us to a place called Brooklyn, where the stories are half-baked and their endings bland and soft
Religious groups that have allied themselves with politicians, and vice versa, have ignored at their peril the lessons of Roger Williams and U.S. history
The Trojan War
Now even some environmentalists are supporting the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. One man’s story suggests the industry can’t be trusted
How a precocious group of high school poets learned to provide verse on demand
Lady of the Lake
Writer Brenda Ueland and the story she never shared
Apologies All Around
Today's tendency to make amends for the crimes of history raises the question: where do we stop?
From the Spring 1976 issue of The Scholar
The Mystery of Ales
Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya
The argument that Alger Hiss was a WWII-era Soviet asset is flawed. New evidence points to someone else
The Mystery of Ales (Expanded Version)
Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya
The argument that Alger Hiss was a WWII-era Soviet asset is flawed. New evidence points to someone else
Love on Campus
Why we should understand, and even encourage, a certain sort of erotic intensity between student and professor
What diplomacy can do and why we need it more than ever
Gazing Into the Abyss
The sudden appearance of love and the galvanizing prospect of death lead a young poet back to poetry and a “hope toward God”
‘Mem, Mem, Mem’
After a stroke, a prolific novelist struggles to say how the mental world of aphasia looks and feels
Between Two Worlds
The familar story of Pocahontas was mirrored by that of a young Englishman given as a hostage to her father
The Invasion of Privacy
Richard H. Rovere
From the Autumn 1958 issue of The Scholar
A New Theory of the Universe
Biocentrism builds on quantum physics by putting life into the equation
Can we begin to think about unexplained religious experiences in ways that acknowledge their existence?
In Pursuit of Innocence
From the Spring 1953 issue of The Scholar
The Judge's Jokes
Shards of memory, for better or for worse, from my father the after-banquet speaker
The celebrated Austrian writer Peter Handke appeared at the funeral of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Should we forgive him?
The Cook's Son
The death of a young man, long ago in Africa, continues to raise questions with no answers
One Day in the Life of Melvin Jules Bukiet
Melvin Jules Bukiet
A Manhattan writer runs afoul of the local penal system and lives to tell the tale
Findings: Privacy Revealed
Richard E. Nicholls
From the Archives
First we stopped noticing members of the working class, and now we're convinced they don’t exist
THE SCHOLAR AT 75: An Educated Guess
Who knew that mixing the intelligent and the idiosyncratic would yield a long life for a certain small quarterly?
Not Compassionate, Not Conservative
A political traditionalist critiques our pseudo-conservative president
Scooter and Me
Professing liberal doubt in an age of fundamentalist fervor
Fear of Falling
Working in the mop-and-bucket brigade in college created the perspectives of a lifetime
The posthumous masterwork of an influential black historian tells how slavery itself undermined the Confederacy
Can a friendship really end for no good reason?
Getting It All Wrong
The proponents of Theory and Cultural Critique could learn a thing or two from bioculture
Lincoln the Persuader
Douglas L. Wilson
Seeking to get people behind his policies, he made himself the best writer for all our presidents
My Mother’s Body
Just remembering her is not enough; resurrecting her is the ultimate goal
Tomorrow Is Another Day
An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native tongue
The Ordinariness of AIDS
Can a disease that tells us so much about ourselves ever be anything but extraordinary?
The Sack of Baghdad
The U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned cultural icons into loot and archaeological sites into ruins
Miles from Nowhere
On a return trip to the wilderness of British Columbia, the author revisits a rough and exquisite landscape
Rum and Coca-Cola
The murky derivations of a sweet drink and a sassy World War II song
The Embarrassment of Riches
Do not pity me for having more money than anyone I know. Still, wealth does have its mild difficulties
The Case for Love
Did the friendship of an early Supreme Court justice and the wife of a colleague ever cross the line of propriety?
Leaving Race Behind
Our growing Hispanic population creates a golden opportunity
On the Outside Looking In
Paris and its banlieues in November 2005
Onward, Christian Liberals
Christianity's long tradition of social injustice
What Jesus Did
Forget about Christ as secular sage, historical figure, or even as Christian
Two Strangers, Three Stories
All the lonely people and where they come from
Shouldn’t There Be a Word ... ?
The holes in our language and the never-ending search for words to fill them
The Idea of Bombay
Bollywood epitomized modernity for a boy in a distant province. As an adult, he sees a troubled city.
Henry James vs. the Robber Barons
Why Italian art should stay in England, where it belongs, and not fall into the hands of foreigners
The New Anti-Semitism
First religion, then race, then what?
My Holocaust Problem
If we cannot speak of it—though speak of it we must—how do we remember what happened to the Jews of Europe?
Palladio in the Rough
A South Carolinian builds classical revival houses that really look old
A Sunday-afternoon player of a certain age says his farewell to basketball
The ebb and flow of life in a Newfoundland fishing village
Buster Brown's America
How a Jew from Slovakia became a Catholic from Manhattan, then fell from grace and turned into a real American
A Visit to Esperantoland
The natives want you to learn their invented language as a step toward world harmony. Who are these people?
Teaching the N-Word
A black professor, an all-white class, and the thing nobody will say
The Rise and Fall of David Duke
Lawrence N. Powell
Breaking the code of right-wing populism in Louisana
Finding the ideal of freedom in a rugged prison colony
Custom and Law
Melvin Jules Bukiet
After the death of his father, a not-notably observant Jew turns to the mourning rituals of his faith
Mary Beth Saffo
How chance authors the universe
Twenty-three ways of looking at our ancestors
Roosevelt Redux: Part Two
Thomas N. Bethell
Robert M. Ball and the battle for Social Security
Buy a house in Maine and they will come. And come.
Thomas N. Bethell
Robert M. Ball and the battle for Social Security
The elderly are entitled to what they have earned
All About Eve
What men have thought about women thinking
A Long Cold View of History
How ice, worms, and dirt made us what we are today
The Big Roundup
John Lomax roamed the West, collecting classic songs from the cowboy era
The Glue Is Gone
The things that held us together as individuals and as a people are being lost. Can we find them again?
So Help Me God
What all fifty-four inaugural addresses, taken as one long book, tell us about American history
What We Got Wrong
How Arabs look at the self, their society, and their political institutions
The Coming of the French
My life as an English professor
The Software Wars
Paul De Palma
Why you can't understand your computer
The Crooner and the Physicist
Jacques Brel and The New Yorker profile that never reached critical mass
A Sturdy Man
Notes on a human symphony
In this piece Mark K Smith explores the nature of teaching – those moments or sessions where we make specific interventions to help people learn particular things. He sets this within a discussion of pedagogy and didactics and demonstrates that we need to unhook consideration of the process of teaching from the role of ‘teacher’ in schools.
contents: introduction • what is teaching? • a definition of teaching • teaching, pedagogy and didactics • approaching teaching as a process • structuring interventions and making use of different methods • what does good teaching look like? • conclusion • further reading and references • acknowledgements • how to cite this piece
Linked piece: the key activities of teaching
A definition for starters: Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.
In teacher education programmes – and in continuing professional development – a lot of time is devoted to the ‘what’ of teaching – what areas we should we cover, what resources do we need and so on. The ‘how’ of teaching also gets a great deal of space – how to structure a lesson, manage classes, assess for learning for learning and so on. Sometimes, as Parker J. Palmer (1998: 4) comments, we may even ask the “why” question – ‘for what purposes and to what ends do we teach? ‘But seldom, if ever’, he continues:
… do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? (op. cit.)
The thing about this is that the who, what, why and how of teaching cannot be answered seriously without exploring the nature of teaching itself. And in the UK and USA that is rarely done well.
What is teaching?
In much modern usage, the words ‘teaching’ and ‘teacher’ are wrapped up with schooling and schools. One way of approaching the question ‘What is teaching?’ is to look at what those called ‘teachers’ do – and then to draw out key qualities or activities that set them apart from others. The problem is that all sorts of things are bundled together in job descriptions or roles that may have little to do with what we can sensibly call teaching.
Another way is to head for dictionaries and search for both the historical meanings of the term and how it is used in everyday language. This brings us to definitions like:
Impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something; or
Cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience.
As can be seen from these definitions we can say that we are all teachers in some way at some time.
Further insight is offered by looking at the ancestries of the words. For example, the origin of the word ‘teach’ lies in the Old English tæcan meaning ‘show, present, point out’, which is of Germanic origin; and related to ‘token’, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek deiknunai ‘show’, deigma ‘sample (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/teach).
To make sense of this it is worth turning to what philosophers of education say. Interestingly, the question, ‘What is teaching?’ hasn’t been a hotbed of activity in recent years in the UK and USA. This says something about the state of schooling and of university departments of education in these countries. A lot of attention has been given to what is good, great or effective ‘teaching’, and not much to what actually teaching is. However, as Paul Hirst (1975) concluded, ‘being clear about what teaching is matters vitally because how teachers understand teaching very much affects what they actually do in the classroom’.
Hirst (1975) makes two very important points. For him teaching should involve:
Setting out with the intention of someone learning something.
Considering people’s feelings, experiences and needs. Teaching is only teaching if people can take on what is taught.
We can begin to weave these into a definition – and highlight some forms it takes.
A definition: Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.
Interventions commonly take the form of questioning, listening, giving information, explaining some phenomenon, demonstrating a skill or process, testing understanding and capacity, and facilitating learning activities (such as note taking, discussion, assignment writing, simulations and practice).
Let us look at the key elements.
Attending to people’s feelings, experiences and needs
Considering what those we are supposed to be teaching need, and what might be going on for them, is one of the main things that makes ‘education’ different to indoctrination. Indoctrination involves knowingly encouraging people to believe something regardless of the evidence (see Snook 1972; Peterson 2007). It also entails a lack of respect for their human rights. Education can be described as the ‘wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life’ (Smith 2015). The process of education flows from a basic orientation of respect – respect for truth, others and themselves, and the world (op. cit.). For teachers to be educators they must, therefore:
Take into account people’s needs and wishes now and in the future.
Consider what might be good for all (and the world in which we live).
Plan their interventions accordingly.
There are a couple of issues that immediately arise from this. First, how do we balance individual needs and wishes against what might be good for others? For most of us this is a probably something that we should answer on a case-by-case basis – and it is also something that is likely to be a focus for conversation and reflection in our work with people. Second, what do we do when people do not see the point of learning particular things – for example, around grammar or safety requirements? The obvious response to this question is that we have to ask and listen – they may have point. However, we also have to weigh this against what we know about the significance of these things in life, and any curriculum or health and safety or other requirements we have a duty to meet. In this case we have a responsibility to try to introduce them to people when the time is right, to explore their relevance and to encourage participation.
Failing to attend to people’s feelings and experiences is problematic – and not just because it reveals a basic lack of respect for them. It is also pointless and counter-productive to try to explore things when people are not ready to look at them. We need to consider their feelings and look to their experiences – both of our classroom or teaching environment, and around the issues or areas we want to explore. Recent developments in brain science has underlined the significance of learning from experience from the time in the womb on (see, for example Lieberman 2013). Bringing people’s experiences around the subjects or areas we are looking to teach about into the classroom or learning situation is, thus, important to the learning process.
Learning particular things
Here I want to emphasize three elements – focus, knowledge and engaging people in learning.
Focus. This may be a bit obvious – but it is probably worth saying – teaching has to have a focus. We should be clear about we are trying to do. One of the findings that shines through research on teaching is that clear learning intentions help learners to see the point of a session or intervention, keep the process on track, and, when challenging, make a difference in what people learn (Hattie 2009: location 4478).
As educators, pedagogues and workers there are a lot of times when we are seeking to foster learning but there may not be great clarity about the specific goals of that learning (see Jeffs and Smith 2016 Chapter 1). We journey with people, trying to build environments for learning and change, and, from time-to-time, creating teaching moments. It is in the teaching moments that we usually need an explicit focus.
Subject knowledge. Equally obvious, is that we need expertise, we need to have content. As coaches we should know about our sport; as religious educators about belief, practice and teachings; and, as pedagogues, ethics, human growth and development and social life. It is clear that good teachers ‘have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning’ (Coe et. al. 2014: 2).
That said, there are often times when we develop our understandings and capacities as we go. In the process of preparing for a session or lesson or group, we may read, listen to and watch YouTube items, look at other resources and learn. We build content and expertise as we teach. Luckily, we can draw on a range of things to support us in our efforts – video clips, web resources, textbooks, activities. Yes, it might be nice to be experts in all the areas we have to teach – but we can’t be. It is inevitable that we will be called to teach in areas where we have limited knowledge. One of the fascinating and comforting things research shows is that what appears to count most for learning is our ability as educators and pedagogues. A good understanding of a subject area, good resources to draw upon and the capacity to engage people in learning yields good results. It is difficult to find evidence that great expertise in the subject matter makes a significant difference within a lot of schooling (Hattie 2009: location 2963).
Having a concern for learning – and in particular seeking to create environments where people develop as, and can be self-directed learners – is one of the key features here. Sometimes subject expertise can get in the way – it can serve to emphasize the gap between people’s knowledge and capacities and that of the teacher. On the other hand, it can be used to generate enthusiasm and interest; to make links; and inform decisions about what to teach and when.
Engaging people in learning. All this underlines our last key point – at the centre of teaching lies enthusiasm and a commitment to, and expertise in, the process of engaging people in learning. This is how John Hattie (2009: location 2939) put it:
… it is teachers using particular teaching methods, teachers with high expectations for all students, and teachers who have created positive student-teacher relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.
Making specific interventions
The final element – making specific interventions – concerns the process of taking defined and targeted action in a situation. In other words, as well as having a clear focus, we try to work in ways that facilitate that focus.
Thinking about teaching as a process of making specific interventions is helpful, I think, because it:
Focuses on the different actions we take. As we saw in the definition, interventions commonly take the form of questioning, listening, giving information, explaining some phenomenon, demonstrating a skill or process, testing understanding and capacity, and facilitating learning activities (such as note taking, discussion, assignment writing, simulations and practice).
Makes us look athow we move from one way of working or communicating to another. Interventions often involve shifting a conversation or discussion onto a different track or changing the process or activity. It may well be accompanied by a change in mood and pace (e.g. moving from something that is quite relaxed into a period of more intense activity). The process of moving from one way of working – or way of communicating – to another is far from straightforward. It calls upon us to develop and deepen our practice.
Highlights the more formal character of teaching. Interventions are planned, focused and tied to particular objectives or intentions. Teaching also often entails using quizzes and tests to see whether planned outcomes have been met. The feel and character of teaching moments are different to many other processes that informal educators, pedagogues and specialist educators use. Those processes, like conversation, playing a game and walking with people are usually more free-flowing and unpredictable.
Teaching, however, is not a simple step-by-step process e.g. of attending, getting information and intervening. We may well start with an intervention which then provides us with data. In addition, things rarely go as planned – at least not if we attend to people’s feelings, experiences and needs. In addition, learners might not always get the points straightaway or see what we are trying to help them learn. They may be able to take on what is being taught – but it might take time. As a result, how well we have done is often unlikely to show up in the results of any tests or in assessments made in the session or lesson.
Teaching, pedagogy and didactics
Earlier, we saw that relatively little attention had been given to defining the essential nature of teaching in recent years in the UK and North America. This has contributed to confusion around the term and a major undervaluing of other forms of facilitating learning. The same cannot be said in a number of continental European countries where there is a much stronger appreciation of the different forms education takes. Reflecting on these traditions helps us to better understand teaching as a particular process – and to recognize that it is fundamentally concerned with didactics rather than pedagogy.
Perhaps the most helpful starting point for this discussion is the strong distinction made in ancient Greek society between the activities of pedagogues (paidagögus) and subject teachers (didáskalos or diadacts). The first pedagogues were slaves – often foreigners and the ‘spoils of war’ (Young 1987). They were trusted and sometimes learned members of rich households who accompanied the sons of their ‘masters’ in the street, oversaw their meals etc., and sat beside them when being schooled. These pedagogues were generally seen as representatives of their wards’ fathers and literally ‘tenders’ of children (pais plus agögos, a ‘child-tender’). Children were often put in their charge at around 7 years and remained with them until late adolescence. As such pedagogues played a major part in their lives – helping them to recognize what was wrong and right, learn how to behave in different situations, and to appreciate how they and those around them might flourish.
Moral supervision by the pedagogue (paidagogos) was also significant in terms of status.
He was more important than the schoolmaster, because the latter only taught a boy his letters, but the paidagogos taught him how to behave, a much more important matter in the eyes of his parents. He was, moreover, even if a slave, a member of the household, in touch with its ways and with the father’s authority and views. The schoolmaster had no such close contact with his pupils. (Castle 1961: 63-4)
The distinction between teachers and pedagogues, instruction and guidance, and education for school or life was a feature of discussions around education for many centuries. It was still around when Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) explored education. In On Pedagogy (Über Pädagogik) first published in 1803, he talked as follows:
Education includes the nurture of the child and, as it grows, its culture. The latter is firstly negative, consisting of discipline; that is, merely the correcting of faults. Secondly, culture is positive, consisting of instruction and guidance (and thus forming part of education). Guidance means directing the pupil in putting into practice what he has been taught. Hence the difference between a private teacher who merely instructs, and a tutor or governor who guides and directs his pupil. The one trains for school only, the other for life. (Kant 1900: 23-4)
It was later – and particularly associated with the work of Herbart (see, for example, Allgemeine pädagogik – General Pedagogics, 1806 and Umriss Pädagogischer Vorlesungen, 1835 – Plan of Lectures on Pedagogy and included in Herbart 1908) – that teaching came to be seen, wrongly, as the central activity of education (see Hamilton 1999).
Didactics – certainly within German traditions – can be approached as Allgemeine Didaktik (general didactics) or as Fachdidaktik (subject didactics). Probably, the most helpful ways of translating didaktik is as the study of the teaching-learning process. It involves researching and theorizing the process and developing practice (see Kansanen 1999). The overwhelming focus within the didaktik tradition is upon the teaching-learning process in schools, colleges and university.
To approach education and learning in other settings it is necessary to turn to the pädagogik tradition. Within this tradition fields like informal education, youth work, community development, art therapy, playwork and child care are approached as forms of pedagogy. Indeed, in countries like Germany and Denmark, a relatively large number of people are employed as pedagogues or social pedagogues. While these pedagogues teach, much of their activity is conversationally, rather than curriculum, -based. Within this what comes to the fore is a focus on flourishing and of the significance of the person of the pedagogue (Smith and Smith 2008). In addition, three elements stand out about the processes of the current generation of specialist pedagogues. First, they are heirs to the ancient Greek process of accompanying and fostering learning. Second, their pedagogy involves a significant amount of helping and caring for. Indeed, for many of those concerned with social pedagogy it is a place where care and education meet – one is not somehow less than the other (Cameron and Moss 2011). Third, they are engaged in what we can call ‘bringing situations to life’ or ‘sparking’ change (animation). In other words, they animate, care and educate (ACE). Woven into those processes are theories and beliefs that we also need to attend to (see Alexander 2000: 541).
We can see from this discussion that when English language commentators talk of pedagogy as the art and science of teaching they are mistaken. As Hamilton (1999) has pointed out teaching in schools is properly approached in the main as didactics – the study of teaching-learning processes. Pedagogy is something very different. It may include didactic elements but for the most part it is concerned with animation, caring and education (see what is education?). It’s focus is upon flourishing and well-being. Within schools there may be specialist educators and practitioners that do this but they are usually not qualified school teachers. Instead they hold other professional qualifications, for example in pedagogy, social work, youth work and community education. To really understand teaching as a process we need to unhook it from school teaching and recognize that it is an activity that is both part of daily life and is an element of other practitioner’s repertoires. Pedagogues teach, for example, but from within a worldview or haltung that is often radically different to school teachers.
Approaching teaching as a process
Some of the teaching we do can be planned in advance because the people involved know that they will be attending a session, event or lesson where learning particular skills, topics or feelings is the focus. Some teaching arises as a response to a question, issue or situation. However, both are dependent on us:
Recognizing and cultivating teachable moments.
Cultivating relationships for learning.
Scaffolding learning – providing people with temporary support so that they deepen and develop their understanding and skills and grow as independent learners.
Differentiating learning – adjusting the way we teach and approach subjects so that we can meet the needs of diverse learners.
Accessing resources for learning.
Adopting a growth mindset.
We are going to look briefly at each of these in turn.
Recognizing and cultivating teachable moments
Teachers – certainly those in most formal settings like schools – have to follow a curriculum. They have to teach specified areas in a particular sequence. As a result, there are always going to be individuals who are not ready for that learning. As teachers in these situations we need to look out for moments when students may be open to learning about different things; where we can, in the language of Quakers, ‘speak to their condition’. Having a sense of their needs and capacities we can respond with the right things at the right time.
Informal educators, animators and pedagogues work differently for a lot of the time. The direction they take is often not set by a syllabus or curriculum. Instead, they listen for, and observe what might be going on for the people they are working with. They have an idea of what might make for well-being and development and can apply it to the experiences and situations that are being revealed. They look out for moments when they can intervene to highlight an issue, give information, and encourage reflection and learning.
In other words, all teaching involves recognizing and cultivating ‘learning moments’ or ‘teaching moments’.
It was Robert J Havinghurst who coined the term ‘teachable moment’. One of his interests as an educationalist was the way in which certain things have to be learned in order for people to develop.
When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment’. It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur. Hence, it is important to repeat important points whenever possible so that when a student’s teachable moment occurs, s/he can benefit from the knowledge. (Havinghurst 1953)
There are times of special sensitivity when learning is possible. We have to look out for them, to help create environments that can create or stimulate such moments, be ready to respond, and draw on the right resources.
Cultivating collaborative relationships for learning
The main thing here is that teaching, like other parts of our work, is about relationship. We have to think about our relationships with those we are supposed to be teaching and about the relationships they have with each other. Creating an environment where people can work with each other, cooperate and learning is essential. One of the things that has been confirmed by recent research in neuroscience is that ‘our brains are wired to connect’, we are wired to be social (Lieberman 2013). It is not surprising then, that on the whole cooperative learning is more effective that either competitive learning (where students compete to meet a goal) or individualistic learning (Hattie 2011: 4733).
As teachers, we need to be appreciated as someone who can draw out learning; cares about what people are feeling, experiencing and need; and breathe life to situations. This entails what Carl Rogers (in Kirschenbaum and Henderson 1990: 304-311) talked about as the core conditions or personal qualities that allow us to facilitate learning in others:
Realness or genuineness. Rogers argued that when we are experienced as real people -entering into relationships with learners ‘without presenting a front or a façade’, we more likely to be effective.
Prizing, acceptance, trust. This involves caring for learners, but in a non-possessive way and recognizing they have worth in their own right. It entails trusting in capacity of others to learn, make judgements and change.
Empathic understanding. ‘When the teacher has the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student, then again the likelihood of significant learning is increased’.
In practical terms this means we talk to people, not at them. We listen. We seek to connect and understand. We trust in their capacity to learn and change. We know that how we say things is often more important than what we say.
Scaffolding entails providing people with temporary support so that they deepen and develop their understanding and skills – and develop as independent learners.
Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student. (Great Schools Partnership 2015)
To do this well, educators and workers need to be doing what we have explored above – cultivating collaborative relationships for learning, and building on what people know and do and then working just beyond it. The term used for latter of these is taken from the work of Lev Vygotsky – is working in the learner’s zone of proximal development.
A third key aspect of scaffolding is that the support around the particular subject or skill is gradually removed as people develop their expertise and commitment to learning.
Scaffolding can take different forms. It might simply involve ‘showing learners what to do while talking them through the activity and linking new learning to old through questions, resources, activities and language’ (Zwozdiak-Myers and Capel, S. 2013 location 4568). (For a quick overview of some different scaffolding strategies see Alber 2014).
The educational use of the term ‘scaffolding’ is linked to the work of Jerome Bruner –who believed that children (and adults) were active learners. They constructed their own knowledge. Scaffolding was originally used to describe how pedagogues interacted with pre-school children in a nursery (Woods et. al. 1976). Bruner defined scaffolding as ‘the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring’ (Bruner 1978: 19).
Differentiation involves adjusting the way we teach and approach subjects so that we can meet the needs of diverse learners. It entails changing content, processes and products so that people can better understand what is being taught and develop appropriate skills and the capacity to act.
The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations. (Great Schools Partnership 2013)
It is often used when working with groups that have within them people with different needs and starting knowledge and skills. (For a quick guide to differentiation see BBC Active).
Accessing resources for learning
One of the key elements we require is the ability to access and make available resources for learning. The two obvious and central resources we have are our own knowledge, feelings and skills; and those of the people we are working with. Harnessing the experience, knowledge and feelings of learners is usually a good starting point. It focuses attention on the issue or subject; shares material; and can encourage joint working. When it is an area that we need to respond to immediately, it can also give us a little space gather our thoughts and access the material we need.
The third key resource is the internet – which we can either make a whole group activity by using search via a whiteboard or screen, or an individual or small group activity via phones and other devices. One of the good things about this is that it also gives us an opportunity not just to reflect on the subject of the search but also on the process. We can examine, for example, the validity of the source or the terms we are using to search for something.
The fourth great resource is activities. Teachers need to build up a repertoire of different activities that can be used to explore issues and areas (see the section below).
Last, and certainly not least, there are the standard classroom resources – textbooks, handouts and study materials.
As teachers we need to have a range of resources at our fingertips. This can be as simple as carrying around a file of activities, leaflets and handouts or having materials, relevant sites and ebooks on our phones and devices.
Adopting a growth mindset
Last, we need to encourage people to adopt what Carol Dweck (2012) calls a growth mindset. Through researching the characteristics of children who succeed in education (and more generally flourish in life), Dweck found that some people have a fixed mindset and some a growth mindset.
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics….
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience. (Dweck 2012: 6-7)
The fixed mindset is concerned with outcomes and performance; the growth mindset with getting better at the task.
In her research she found, for example, that students with a fixed mindset when making the transition from elementary school to junior high in the United States, declined – their grades immediately dropped and over the next two years continued to decline. Students with a growth mindset showed an increase in their grades (op. cit.: 57). The significance of this for teaching is profound. Praising and valuing achievement tends to strengthen the fixed mindset; praising and valuing effort helps to strengthen a growth mindset.
While it is possible to question elements of Dweck’s research and the either/or way in which prescriptions are presented (see Didau 2015), there is particular merit when teaching of adopting a growth mindset (and encouraging it in others). It looks to change and development rather than proving outselves.
Structuring interventions and making use of different methods
One of the key things that research into the processes of teaching and educating tells us is that learners tend to like structure; they want to know the shape of a session or intervention and what it is about. They also seem to like variety, and changes in the pace of the work (e.g. moving from something quite intense to something free flowing).
It is also worth going back to the dictionary definitions – and the origins of the word ‘teach’. What we find here are some hints of what Geoff Petty (2009) has talked about as ‘teacher-centred’ methods (as against active methods and student-centred methods).
|Teacher-centred methods||Active methods||Student-centred methods|
|Talking||Supervised student practice||Reading for learning|
|Explaining||Discussion||Private study and homework|
|Showing||Group work||Assignments and essays|
|Questioning||Games||Projects and reports|
|Note-making||Role play, drama and simulations||Independent learning|
If we ask learners about their experiences and judgements, one of things that comes strongly through the research in this area is that students overwhelming prefer group discussion, games and simulations and activities like drama, artwork and experiments. At the bottom of this list come analysis, theories, essays and lectures (see Petty 2009: 139-141). However, there is not necessarily a connection between what people enjoy doing and what produces learning.
Schoolteachers may use all of these methods – but so might sports workers and instructors, youth ministers, community development workers and social pedagogues. Unlike schoolteachers, informal educators like these are not having to follow a curriculum for much of their time, nor teach content to pass exams. As such they are able to think more holistically and to think of themselves as facilitators of learning. This means:
Focusing on the active methods in the central column;
Caring about people’s needs, experiences and feeling;
Looking for teachable moments when then can make inputs often along the lines of the first column (teacher-centred methods); and
Encouraging people to learn for themselves i.e. take on projects, to read and study, and to learn independently and be self-directed (student-centred methods).
In an appendix to this piece we look at some key activities of teaching and provide practical guidance. [See key teaching activities]
What does good teaching look like?
What one person sees as good teaching can easily be seen as bad by another. Here we are going to look at what the Ofsted (2015) framework for inspection says. However, before we go there it is worth going back to what Paul Hirst argued back in 1975 and how we are defining teaching here. Our definition was:
Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.
We are looking at teaching as a specific process – part of what we do as educators, animators and pedagogues. Ofsted is looking at something rather different. They are grouping together teaching, learning and assessment – and adding in some other things around the sort of outcomes they want to see. That said, it is well worth looking at this list as the thinking behind it does impact on a lot of the work we do.
Inspectors will make a judgement on the effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment by evaluating the extent to which:
teachers, practitioners and other staff have consistently high expectations of what each child or learner can achieve, including the most able and the most disadvantaged
teachers, practitioners and other staff have a secure understanding of the age group they are working with and have relevant subject knowledge that is detailed and communicated well to children and learners
assessment information is gathered from looking at what children and learners already know, understand and can do and is informed by their parents/previous providers as appropriate
assessment information is used to plan appropriate teaching and learning strategies, including to identify children and learners who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support, enabling children and learners to make good progress and achieve well
except in the case of the very young, children and learners understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback from staff and, where relevant, parents, carers and employers understand how learners should improve and how they can contribute to this
engagement with parents, carers and employers helps them to understand how children and learners are doing in relation to the standards expected and what they need to do to improve
equality of opportunity and recognition of diversity are promoted through teaching and learning
where relevant, English, mathematics and other skills necessary to function as an economically active member of British society and globally are promoted through teaching and learning.
We see some things that many will not disagree with like having high expectations of learners, knowing what the needs of the group may be, having expertise in the area being taught; recogniting diversity and having a concern for equality of opportunity; and so on. We may also see the role that assessment plays in reinforcing learning and helping to shape future learning. However, there are things we may disagree with. Perhaps more importantly there are all sorts of things missing here. For example, why is there an emphasis on economic activity as against social, religious and political participation? Another issue, for many of you reading this, is possibly the way in which little account is made of the extent to which learners take responsibility for their own learning. They are encouraged to contribute to learning but not own it.
Good teaching is rather more than technique according to Parker J. Palmer. Good teaching, he says, ‘comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher’ (Palmer 1998: 11). It is the way we are experienced, our enthusiasm, our care, our knowledge, our interest in, and concern for, people that is the key to whether we are felt to be good teachers. As Jackie Beere (2012) and others have argued we need to be present as people in the classroom or learning environment.
This is not to say that technique isn’t important. It is. We need to be skilled at scaffolding learning; creating relationships and environments for learning; and catching teaching moments. It is just that these skills need to be employed by someone who can be respected, is experienced as real and is wise.
In this piece we have made a plea to explore teaching as a process rather than something that is usually approached as the thinking and activity associated with a particular role – the school teacher. As has been argued elsewhere a significant amount of what those called school teachers do is difficult to classify as education (see What is education?). Even the most informal of educators will find themselves teaching. They may well work hard at building and facilitating environments where people can explore, relate and learn. However, extending or deepening that exploration often leads to short, or not so short bursts of teaching or instructing. For example, as sports coaches or outdoor educators we may be both trying to develop teamwork and build particular skills or capacities. As a specialist or religious educators we might be seeking to give information, or introduce ideas that need some explanation. These involve moments of teaching or instructing. Once we accept this then we can hopefully begin to recognize that school teachers have a lot to learn from other teachers – and vice versa.
We also need to unhook ‘pedagogy’ from school teaching within English language discussions – and to connect it with the tradition of didactics. One of the problems with the false link of school teaching to pedagogy is that it is impairing a proper discussion of pedagogy. However, that may change a little in the UK at least with the development of professional standards for social pedagogy and the emergence of graduate and post-graduate study in the area.
Further reading and references
Check out the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The Educational Endowment Foundation has produced a very accessible review of the evidence concerning different things that schools do. Many of the things that schools do have little or no evidence to support them e.g. streaming and setting, insisting on school uniform, using performance related pay. Some things are very productive like giving feedback; teaching specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate academic development; peer tutoring; and early years’ intervention.
Key teaching activities. This infed page outlines 9 key activities and why they are central to the process of teaching.
Alber, R. (2014). 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students, Eductopia. [http://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber. Retrieved February 9, 2016].
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The section ‘teaching, pedagogy and didactics’ draws heavily on another piece written by Mark K Smith for infed.org (see Smith 2012).
The picture: Group project is by Brande Jackson. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brandejackson/3304249131
The ACE diagram is taken from Smith, M. K. (2016). Working with young people in difficult times (Chapter 1). http://infed.org/mobi/working-with-young-people-in-difficult-times/
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2016). ‘What is teaching?’ in the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2016.
Mark K Smith is based at Developing Learning, London and can be contacted there.