Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Flirting rather than lecturing

Chip Heath and Dan Heath's book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die was never written to be sold strictly as a teacher preparation text-book, but it should be. The Heath brothers borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, sticky, and inside their 300+ pages they provide six characteristics most sticky ideas share: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional and stories.

The Heath brothers explain how gaining someone's attention is tricky enough, but keeping their attention maybe infinitely harder. If you're a teacher, you don't need to be told this. In fact, you could write a book on this topic.

Here is an excerpt that I found helpful when thinking of my next lessons:

Knowledge gaps create interest. But to prove that the knowledge gaps exist, it may be necessary to highlight some knowledge first. "Here's what you know. Now here's what you're missing." Alternatively, you can set context so people care what comes next. It's no accident that mystery novels and crossword puzzle writers give us clues. When we feel that we're close to the solution of a puzzle, curiosity takes over and propels us to the finish.

Treasure maps, as shown in the movies, are vague. They show a few key landmarks and a big X where the treasure is. Usually the adventurer knows just enough to find the first landmark, which becomes the first step in a long journey touward the treasure. If treasure maps were produced on MapQuest.com, with door-to-door directions, it would kill the adventure-movie genre. There is value in sequencing information - not dumping a stack of information on someone at once but dropping a clue, then another clue, then another. This method of communication resembles flirting more than lecturing.

Unexpected ideas, by opening a knowledge gap, tease and flirt. They mark a big red X on something that needs to be discovered but don't necessarily tell you how to get there. And, as we'll see, a red X of spectacular size can end up driving the actions of thousands of people for many years.

The best kind of learning occurs when you construct your own understanding - hence why most people who know anything about learning subscribe to the constructivist model. This model doesn't leave the learner to fend for themselves through the jungles of learning, rather the teacher does in fact play an important role. But rather than bieng the bulldozer who removes every obstacle in the jungle, the teacher is the compass, wineskin, or machete - in other words, the teacher plays a supporting role, but resists the urge to swoop in and rescue. To do so would sabotage the whole adventure.

We all know of children who are likely to buck the system and subvert the learning process, but you may find it ironic that the children are not the only one's causing teachers grief.

Because teachers are being asked to teach such monstrously large curriculums by the very system they work in, it is tempting to cover everything - travelling at break-neck speeds just to get to the end of the curriculum guide.

But there's a problem.

We call it a curriculum guide, but it's not a guide anymore, is it?

It's now become a rule book.

And it's threatening.

Howard Gardner wasn't joking when he said:

"The greatest enemy of understanding is 'coverage.'"

Despite the external, and threatening, pressures to do otherwise, teachers need to find a way to insulate our students from this madness. If not for our own sanity, then for the student's learning. That is why some of the very best teachers spend every day subverting or ignoring curriculum.

The next time your planning a lesson, remember that role as a teacher is less about lecturing the curriculum but flirting with it - presenting it in such a way that you care less about what your students know and more about what questions you want them to ask.

That is real engagement.

That is real learning.


  1. Ha, first of all, excellent post title! I had to click on that one right away. :-) As usual, I absolutely agree. I think the same abuse has occurred with textbooks. They used to be meant as reference materials, and now they're often the lesson plan.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! I love the idea of flirting the lesson! You give them just enough to hook 'em then they want to investigate! Constructivist learning at its best!

  3. Focus on the BIG IDEAS.

    I have eliminated textbooks from my classroom - mostly because most of the stuff in the textbooks doesn't even match the Ontario standards. By backing away from the text book, I am free to be more creative and precise.

    By taking the overall expectations from the curriculum (big ideas!) and the questions that my students generate at the beginning of the unit- I can build some real learning. It is great if the student's questions hit all of the specific expectations underneath, but I don't sweat it if they don't.

    Flirting with the curriculum. Nicely put.

  4. At my school it's all about curriculum. Whatever we do it's cause "It's in the test" and "You'll need to know this.". For once I wish we could learn something cause we wanted to, not because someone decided that we needed to know it and somehow thought a test would be the best way to ensure that we do.


There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email