Disclaimer: Brian Housand doesn’t know I’m doing this (and neither does Richard Cash).
Teachers should avoid three behaviors that can diminish their efficacy as educators, and I’m going to illustrate them with a case study from my own life.
At the California Association for the Gifted Conference, Richard Cash gave a keynote. I was in the audience. Richard (Can I call him Richard?) had some great ideas. He is a dynamic, well-prepared speaker who has strong stage presence and an equally strong message. I had met him before at another conference, and I was predisposed to like him. This seems like the beginning of a conference love story, doesn’t it?
I would suggest that Richard violated three tenets of good instruction during the keynote that undermined his efficacy. I’m going to share what those were and how another presenter at the conference, Brian Housand, avoided these same mistakes. If you’re not a teacher, I think you’ll find application for these ideas in real life (as opposed to the alternative universe that is school).
1. Avoid Thinking that Great Minds Always Think Alike.
What Richard Did:
During his talk, Richard argued that in effective classrooms, students were talking 90% of the time, while teachers were only talking 10% of the time.
It seems to me that it’s nearly always a mistake, especially when dealing with gifted learners, to put something forward as absolute truth. This make the learning a zero sum game where if I disagree with you, I’m wrong. This can depress discussion because we can no longer discuss; we can only argue.
It’s often true that great minds don’t think alike, so teachers create safe learning environments by avoiding making learners feel that one’s idea is the only truth.
I would simply disagree that if the teacher’s doing very little talking, that is the hallmark or even a hallmark of a great class. We could talk forever about all the reasons; the point is that I disagree, yet his statement left no room for disagreement and demeaned every teacher who does more than take roll (which in a class of 38 kids can take 10% of instructional time – that may be hyperbole, but you get the idea).
Now, I understand Richard’s point (at least what I think it was) that learning involves more than one person talking and everyone else sitting quietly. We can agree there. But assigning an arbitrary number, especially one as extreme as 90/10 is simply irresponsible (in my opinion – you’re welcome to disagree).
How Brian Did it Better:
In a session Brian facilitated, he put forward his ideas through stories (illustrated with great images) that led participants to this idea gently and humanely. He avoided framing his opinions in absolutes. He demonstrated his openness to being wrong himself by using some mild self-deprecation and humor.
Frame your thoughts with phrases like, “It seems to me…” or “I’ve been thinking about this idea…what do you think?” Another strategy is to share a thought you’ve had and seek opinions opposite.
Richard could have avoided this situation by saying something less drastic (“Half the words should be spoken by the students”), by using humor (“Hey, teachers, let’s let the students get a word in edgewise!”), or by sharing a story of a classroom he’d seen where the teacher took a back seat and it worked really well, letting the audience organically come to the idea that they, too, could try it.
Instead, if you had opened my brain’s task manager during the rest of the session, you would have seen a large percentage of my CPU devoted to thinking of all the reasons he was wrong.
2. Avoid Pushing. Use a Lure Instead.
What Richard Did:
In his quest to persuade teachers of the need for high-level questioning, Richard said that factual questions like, “What is 320 x 46?” are “useless.” This created the same response as I shared above (I thought obsessively about how wrong that was on so many levels – and I’m an English teacher!). It had another consequence as well: it made him eat his words later.
Further along in the talk, when talking about higher-level thinking, he said that students “need that [factual] knowledge for this level of thought process.” Whoa. But you just said…
The reality is that I don’t want to hear anyone share their ideas about something about which they are ignorant. I get enough of that from politicians (just saying). You can’t have higher-level thinking without fundamentals. That is true, Richard admitted it was true, but not until after he had dismissed it out of hand. If he had lured us into the idea with scenarios, a little research, a little deductive reasoning, he would have had us. Instead, I was pushed, and when he contradicted himself, he invited resistance and lost credibility with some.
Richard created a false dichotomy, and it forced him to contradict himself later. When you do this with gifted learners, it costs you credibility. Not only do you misalign yourself with accuracy, but you make yourself an unreliable narrator. Unless you’re Nick in The Great Gatsby, no one wants to hear from an unreliable narrator.
How Brian Did it Better:
Brian’s session later was titled “If Your Students Can Google the Answer, You May Not be Asking the Right Questions.” On the surface, he’s agreeing with the idea that we don’t need knowledge and comprehension level questions. Yet notice that little three-letter word “may.” You “may” not be asking the right questions. The difference between that and calling low Bloom questions “useless” is the difference between speaking words and eating them.
Brian’s presentation led teachers to the idea that it’s important to think about the questions we’re asking (which was the same point Richard was making), yet it did it humanely by the insertion of that single little modal verb “may.” He left himself wiggle room, which meant no time was wasted in argument (silently or vocally).
The real key is to focus on your central message and lure the learner to it. The central message of Richard’s talk wasn’t really (in my opinion) that factual questions were or were not useless. Rather, it was that higher-level questions were vital and central to the teaching of gifted learners and sharing how to do that.
When you know your central focus, reconsider what led you to the idea, and try leading your learners along the same or similar path, rather than pushing. In doing so, you build, not breakdown, credibility.
3. Avoid Insulting, Alienating, or Humiliating the Learner.
What Richard Did:
Richard had some table exercises going on during the keynote, which is fantastic, especially in a long keynote. I was totally with him. I participated fully in them with a happy and willing heart. Until he threw me under the bus in front of hundreds of people.
At one point, he had us look at the Preamble to the Constitution (which, thanks to my awesome home state of California’s 8th grade curriculum, I had memorized). We were to pick out three words, define them for ourselves, and then discuss them with our table, identifying similarities and differences and why those differences were significant.
In any event, my group got to work. We were unsure of whether we were supposed to compare words or definitions, but we plowed ahead, going with what we thought would work. Richard walked by our table, and another teacher suggested asking him to clarify it. I asked him, sharing what we thought we should be doing, and he didn’t really give us an answer. He walked away and then resumed the keynote.
When he started talking again, he shared this story – that he had been asked to clarify what we should be comparing. He told the crowd that when he wouldn’t give us a direct answer, “they looked at me like I had three heads.”
I felt instantly humiliated. That may not have been his intent, but that is no comfort. First of all, it wasn’t even true. We didn’t do that. Do I like receiving a non-answer to a question? No. It’s insulting. He could have said, “Be a little comfortable with the ambiguity of it” or something to that effect, but that’s not really the issue. I did not look at him like he had three heads. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have enjoyed being called out in front of hundreds of people.
The issue is that he took someone predisposed to like him, who had only had mild objections (see above) to other things he had said or done, and not only made that person turned off, he set himself up in opposition to me and created an unnecessary enemy. And now, when people ask my opinion of him, this is the story they will hear.
When you embarrass students, it can ruin your year and damage a student forever. I will break my own rule and speak in an absolute:
Humiliating the learner is never the right answer.
The hard part is that we don’t get to decide what will humiliate the learner, so we must tread softly, especially with at-risk kiddos. And in school, GT kids are at-risk. Anyone not in the norm is at risk.
What Brian Did Better:
In Brian’s presentation, some people came up with different answers than ones that were “right” or necessarily what he was seeking. He crowdsourced it – sending them back to their sources and soliciting suggestions from others there. Everyone in his session felt smart because he made us feel smart by letting us in on backstory, inside jokes, and openness to opposing opinion.
When you embarrass people, especially in front of a group, you lose them. I’ve never met anyone who enjoyed being embarrassed, and when you feel that you were embarrassed with inaccuracy, it is salt in the wound. As educators, we must think before we speak. Often, if we are gifted ourselves, sarcasm is just another service we offer, but it can wound. Use caution. I can see in my mind’s eye times I’ve done this, and I wish I could take it back because I shut down learning when I do that.
Our goal should be to instill confidence in students, not humiliate them. It can diminish academic risk-taking, which is so necessary in our GT students.
If Richard had only made the first two (what I would consider) errors, I would not have written this. The fact that he embarrassed me in front of hundreds of people made the difference. We may wish to consider avoiding that tipping point.
As teachers, let’s think about inviting opposing opinion rather than assuming that if you’re smart, you’ll agree with me.
Let’s muse over luring students rather than pushing them.
Let’s build up our students, not humiliate them.
I believe these ideas can make us better, more effective teachers, with students who feel empowered by learning.
I invite opposing opinion stated politely.