Sunday, January 9, 2011

What is this blog about?

P.J.'s take:
Reading the popular press and media gives two distinct impressions about teaching.  One view--the Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds model--is that teaching is essentially a gift: some people just have the ability to communicate ideas and skills to other people (and some people don't).  The opposite view is that teaching is simply a set of skills that themselves can be imparted in a relatively straightforward way, such that any person who employs those skills will be a reasonably successful teacher.
I've grown into a third view:  that teaching is neither a gift nor a simple skill, but a craft.  When I was little, I was befriended by a potter who shared her next-door studio, clay, and pottery with me, and I think teaching is a lot like making pottery. 

Being a good teacher, like being a good potter, requires knowing a wide range of facts and skills, many of which can be learned easily.  Pottery knowledge includes facts: about types of clay, glaze chemistry, etc.  It includes techniques: how to knead the clay to get the bubbles out, or how to hollow out the interior, so that the sculpture doesn't explode in the kiln.  Similarly, a teacher has to know the subject and be able to anticipate common student mistakes and misconceptions.  A teacher has to have techniques for dealing with homework, for setting up different kinds of activities in class, for assessing work, and for assigning grades.

Other pottery skills require practice and patience: they aren't so easily acquired.  Actually getting the clay to make the desired shape is tough, and it can't be learned it by watching a video or reading about it in a book.  The only way is to try, and to fail, and to fail again, and to keep reflecting on the failures.  Running a discussion is like that:  the teacher starts with an idea about where the discussion could go,and what ideas could come out, but actually getting that to happen--eliciting good questions and suggestions, deciding what questions to answer, what mistakes to correct and which students to call on--is a different matter.  These skills require practice and reflection, not just factual knowledge or a quick practice session.

If you want a bunch of happy and unhappy accidents, objects that turn out as they turn out, then almost anyone can be a potter, and without much training.  Even "simple" white plates and complicated shapes can be produced by someone who spends time mastering the appropriate techniques.  But to produce great sculpture, beautiful pottery, requires vision as well as skill; the skill is what lets the potter realize his or her vision in the clay.  Great lessons and courses are like that:  they're not just expertly-run, but reflect a vision of the subject unique to the teacher and the topic.   If the desired outcomes are kids who can reproduce skills on demand, without having to think for themselves, it might be possible to make anyone a teacher in a few months or less.  But helping kids learn to think and reflect, to have, value, and evaluate their own ideas requires teachers with vision, passion, and mastery of teaching's core techniques. 

In this blog, we'll talk about the skills and ideas that we've discovered and are continuing to discover.  And we'll talk about the moments of reflection, inspiration, and frustration that keep us going and keep us asking.  We hope this will be a conversation, between us and you, the reader.  Thank you for joining us....

P.J. Karafiol & John Benson