Mantras that Can Strengthen Your Teaching | Inside Higher Ed

Few fields are as cluttered with cliches as education.  How many times have we heard that “teaching is not filling a pail, it’s lighting a fire.”  Or “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Some of these catchphrases are inspirational. Others are mawkish, schmaltzy, sappy, corny, or syrupy.  Here are a few examples:

  • “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.”
  • “The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth.”
  • “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

Of course, some cliched phrases should never be used.  You should never say words that are disparaging, insulting, and offensive – yet too many instructors do.  We’ve all heard phrases like these:

  • “Listen and silent have the same letters for a reason.”
  • “You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason!”
  • “Do I need to get my spoon? Cause it looks like we have people waiting to be spoon-fed the answers.”
  • “There should only be one person speaking at a time, and at the moment that person is ME!”
  • “If you think you know this already – you come out the front and tell everybody and I’ll sit down.”
  •  “Sit still and listen.”
  • “Perhaps you’d like to say that again so that the whole class can hear.”
  • “Because I said so.”
  • “You’ve done well today.  Don’t spoil it.”
  • “It’s your time you’re wasting, not mine.”
  •  “Better get used to it.  That’s what it’s like in the real world.”

Still other cliches contain pearls of wisdom.  However simplistic, unsophisticated or naïve, these phrases speak to certain fundamental truths.

  • “Teaching isn’t just content delivery and learning isn’t just passing tests.”
  • “Education is more than memorizing facts, it’s learning to solve problems.”
  • “Every teacher is a teacher of reading (or writing or listening).”
  • “Education is the process of discovering what you don’t know.”
  • “I don’t give out grades. You earn them.”

Especially valuable are those catchphrases that encapsulate insights from the science of learning.

  • “Listening ain’t learning and talking ain’t teaching.”
  • “Just because you take notes or re-read doesn’t mean you’re learning.”
  • “Boredom (or stress or pressure or rigidity or multitasking) is the enemy of learning.”

Then there are simple lessons we’d all do well to grasp and apply.  Alfie Kohn, the educational contrarian, has identified a series of educational truths that bear repeating:

  • Students are most likely to learn what they find interesting (or relevant or useful).  They’re less likely to learn what’s uninteresting, boring, stressful, or what they’re forced to do.
  • Students are more likely to succeed when they feel cared about. They learn best when they feel a sense of belonging or connection.
  • In an effective classroom, students should not only know what they are doing, they should also know why and how.
  •  Students should develop in many ways, not just academically.

Kohn has also identified a series of mistakes that we should avoid:  

  • “Just because a lesson (or book, or class, or test) is harder doesn’t mean it’s better.”
    Don’t confuse difficulty or severity or inflexibility with rigor.  Think of it as Brian Sztabnik, a high school literature teacher, does: “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”
  • “Saying you taught it but the student didn’t learn it is like saying you sold it but the customer didn’t buy it.”
    If one student doesn’t grasp a subject, perhaps it’s the student’s fault.  But if several students don’t understand a topic, it’s certainly my fault.  If I don’t adjust, I own the problem.
  • “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.”
    Rewards, Kohn notes, undercut intrinsic motivation, stifle risk-taking, and discourage creativity. Praise simply make students greedy for more praise.  

Let me conclude with a number of mantras that we should all take to heart.

1. “Talk less, ask more.”
Monologues encourage students to tune out. Chunk lectures.  Break up monologues with active learning opportunities.  Transform lectures into conversations, and make sure your students are active participants in those conversations.  Rephrase what you heard a student say. It tells a student that you are paying attention.

2. “Without engagement, there is no learning.”
If students are to learn, they must find the material interesting.  It’s up to an instructor to appeal to students’ curiosity and to demonstrate that the material is relevant and applicable to tackling future problems.

3. “Teaching isn’t simply a matter of content delivery.”
Learning requires a student to process information, to practice skills, to engage in inquiry and problem solving, and apply knowledge.  Active learning, in short, isn’t an “add-on” or enhancement; it’s learning itself.

4. “Make your classroom a caring community.”
Do whatever you can to cultivate a sense of connection between yourself and your students and your students and their classmates.  Encourage collaboration and always show compassion.

5. “Meet students where they are.”
Make sure you understand your students: what they already know, what interests them, and what confusions, misunderstandings, and anxieties they bring to your class.  Monitor their learning and constantly adjust to their learning needs.

6. Remember that grading can be degrading.
Grades can serve many positive functions.  They delineate levels of achievement. They can motivate.  They can push students to do their best.  They can serve as a reward for doing well. They can give students feedback on how well they have mastered a subject.

But grades can also induce stress and anxiety. They can encourage students to pursue good marks at the expense of meaningful learning.  They can prompt students to cheat.  They can harm students’ self-esteem.  They can transform learning into a competition.

It makes sense to alter the meaning and purpose of grades.  Grades do not need to be subjective.  A rubric’s value lies partly in helping instructors specify the competencies that students need to demonstrate and the expectations students ought to meet.

Also, avoid using grades to sort or rank.  Grades should tell students how they’re doing.  We might treat grades as progress indicators, as measures of where students are in their academic journey, and as points-in-time assessments of a particular assignment’s quality.  Be sure to couple grades with feedback and actionable advice designed to help students perform more skillfully.

7. “What matters most about feedback is that it’s useful.”
To be useful, feedback must be timely, appropriate, reflective, honest, supportive, enabling, and empowering.

8. “Ask students to demonstrate their learning.”
Not through tests, but creative projects.  Interesting examples include a policy brief, an environmental assessment, an exhibition, an editorial, a podcast, or a video story. Then give students the opportunity to present their project to their classmates.

9. “Education is liberation.”
Education is not just liberation from ignorance.  At its best, education also builds students’ confidence. It also inspires students to think critically.  It frees the mind from cliches and platitudes and the conventional wisdom that impede originality and fresh perspectives. 

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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