Don’t Tell Them What You’re Going to Teach Them

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As a young teacher, I was told that when in doubt, default to this three-step teaching strategy:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to teach them.
  2. Teach them.
  3. Tell them what you taught them.

This was good advice for a young teacher because it was concise, it was manageable, and it was effective for someone who hadn’t yet found his own voice and his own method. By and large, this strategy worked. But in retrospect, it was more about me finding MY way than finding a way for THE KIDS. To give an example using this method, allow me this fictitious narrative that I might have used in my early years as a teacher:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to teach them.
    Today we’re going to learn about Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was a composer who is best known for his “Symphonie Fantastique,” written in 1830. It’s a five-movement work subtitled, “An Episode in the Life of an Artist.” A unique feature of this symphony is the recurring use of a five-note motive that would become known as the “idee fixe,” or fixed idea. Berlioz used it to represent his beloved. (Not very engaging, even to this writer!)
  2. Teach them.
    At this point, I might have elaborated on the five movements, played examples of the idee fixe as they are presented in each movement, and then asked the kids how they thought each version of the motive applied to that particular movement. All of this is well within the scope of “good teaching.” (Still not very engaging, but at least there’s action.)
  3. Tell them what you taught them.
    Also known as “closure,” this is when I might have summarized the content of the lesson and referenced my “anticipatory set”. (My “tell them what you’re going to teach them” introduction).

There’s nothing wrong with this approach technically, but it doesn’t genuinely engage the student the way it’s intend to. By telling them up front what I plan to teach them, I allow them to formulate an opinion about the subject matter. And unless I get to the “good stuff” right away, the non-verbal cues are likely to spread rapidly and my lesson is sunk before it even launches.

How about we eliminate Step 1 and go right to a modified Step 2? Our new Step 2 is, “Go where the student is and employ SNEAK-ATTACK TEACHING!” Our new lesson might sound like this…

Have you every been so passionate about someone or something that you thought about it all the time? Maybe it was a car you dreamed of owning, or taking a trip somewhere exotic, or maybe it was someone you really liked but didn’t know just how to express it. Have any of you ever felt like that? Me, too! You might express your feelings in a blog, or maybe a diary (if you know what that is!), or maybe you’d write a poem or a song.

Now imagine you’re so deeply attached to someone that you think about — even dream about — him or her all the time. And in your dreams, you’re found to be so uncommonly passionate that a judge and jury find you guilty of a new crime, of being criminally ‘In Love.’ In your dream, it’s 19th Century France, and the punishment for your crime is to face the guillotine. Well, it just so happens that such a person existed. He was never actually executed for his obsession over this woman, but his passion haunted him so greatly that he imagined it to be a criminal act. In an effort to reveal his emotions, he set his feelings to music and, if you listen closely to what he wrote, you can hear his footsteps as he marches down the street to the scaffold. Then you hear the music build as he ascends to what will be his final living moment on this earth. Now, you hear a musical depiction of his final thought of this woman, interrupted by the swoosh-slam of the blade racing downward. And next — as morbid as this is — you hear his head bounce into the basket as the crowd cheers this ultimate act of atonement. This man was Hector Berlioz and his composition is entitled, “Symphony Fantastique.”

I think you’ll agree, by going through the back door and using a “sneak attack” approach, the lesson becomes engaging and, perhaps, even relevant. This approach doesn’t diminish our lesson. It capitalizes on the very thing that music does so well: it tells a story. And if a story doesn’t exist, then we, the teachers, might have to create one!

As a young teacher, I often thought I had to bring the kids to me for them to learn. Now I know that I must start by going to them, and then lead them gently and persuasively in my direction.