My granddaughter is 22 months old and already the dispositions of human nature are apparent. I have watched her at the dinner table refuse to be fed – to insist on eating only if she can hold the spoon and bowl. I have seen her fight being dressed, preferring instead to dress herself. Forget for a moment the yogurt that is dripping from the hair on her head- the same head that is poking through an armhole in the shirt she somehow pulled on over one arm. Everything in your being wants to fix her shirt, take the spoon and feed her, but something tells you to let her be: she could not be more content.
Zoe reminds me about some of the characteristics that distinguish highly effective teaching. The most effective teachers appreciate that learning is messy. It doesn’t always look polished or perfect. The students are not always sitting in rows and their products sometimes defy interpretation. In first grade I made a clay bowl for my parents that morphed into an ashtray; never mind that neither of them smoked.
Leonardo DaVinci said that “the only real learning comes through experimentation.” Effective teachers understand the importance of explanation and demonstration, but sooner rather than later, they move their students into authentic experiences in which they work collaboratively or individually toward an outcome. The best do this at least as often as they lecture or demonstrate because they appreciate that until their students are “doing” something they are not learning.
Highly effective teachers are “patient facilitators:” patient in their willingness to let learning be sloppy before it becomes polished, and facilitative rather than directive in their role. Too often as adults our enthusiasm lacks the restraint to let learning be messy. Because of our own pride and our concern about what others will think of us, or our own need to be in control, we do for our children and students what they should be attempting to do themselves. This is human nature as well, but as adults we must acknowledge that when we do too much we work against their basic need to be autonomous.
At different times in my career I have heard colleagues complain about the apathy of their students. I have heard them say, “they want to be spoon fed!” I often say to myself as I walk away, “if it’s true, it’s only because we taught them to be that way.”