Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What can we learn from books/movies about teaching?

While it probably does not happen often enough to be considered a trend, I have noticed that many educators on Twitter are using fictional stories to justify what they see as effective teaching. I have seen arguments that Obi-Wan Kenobi's work with Luke in Star Wars suggests that lecture is not all bad. Others point to Mr. Miyagi's teaching in The Karate Kid as evidence that teachers do not need to make their intentions explicit to be effective. Even I have succumbed to the temptation by holding up Tom Sawyer as an example of the way I would like to teach.

I understand why we do it. 140 characters makes it difficult to state our position and defend it all in a single tweet. Consequently, we rely on parts of familiar stories that transmit a shared understanding of our perspective. When I brought up Tom Sawyer, I trusted that people would remember the passage about Tom being sentenced to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence. I am old enough that, although I read the original story, the picture that comes to mind is from the 1973 movie starring Johnny Whitaker.

The problem is that these characters are responding to Tom's approach because that's how it was written not as empirical evidence of my point. Sure, the story resonates with us because it represents some experience or idea that we are familiar with (in my case, the gradual release of responsibility) but it is important to remember that it is fiction not reality. The progression from modeling to mentoring to monitoring will not be as fast as Tom experienced. To suggest otherwise might lead a teacher trying this approach to believe that such a transition will be quick and easy; this is not the case, which could lead to the teacher to experience frustration when it actually takes time and is messy.

I have said it before, teaching is hard. It is understandable that we might try to simplify it by using familiar stories as some sort of allegory. In fact, I cannot say with certainty that I will not use this approach in the future. What I will try to do is ensure that I encourage a great deal of critical thinking around how the fiction represents some reality of education and where it oversimplifies the teaching and learning process. That is my commitment to making the complexities of teaching explicit.


  1. Analogies can also break down because people often view analogies from different perspectives.

    For example, people often use the analogy that great musicians practice their scales over and over again to justify the use of excessive repetition in math classes, to which I respond, "Maybe, but most people who start learning how to play a musical instrument quit."

  2. Several years ago I wrote a book and created a website to demonstrate the use of Reel Teachers in understanding our profession.