When someone asks you what do you for a living and your answer is “teaching,” people generally assume you’re in a position of power. Why wouldn’t they? When we think of teachers, we picture them standing in front of their students, giving instructions and maintaining order. Teachers dictate rules, answer questions, have command over their material, and captivate their students with brilliant insights and advanced knowledge. When you’re a teacher, students take you seriously. They admire and respect you. (Or, you hope they do!)
While being in this position of power can feel gratifying, it doesn’t always work. When this school year started, I decided to stop “teaching” my 10th graders in the traditional sense, and find a new way to educate my students.
Why Teaching Fails
“The teacher refuses to govern the students in their inquiry because he wants the students to learn how to govern themselves.” — Donald Finkel
Our assumptions regarding what a “good” teacher is may very well be wrong. In his book “ Teaching with Your Mouth Shut,” Donald L. Finkel describes teachers who “carefully and clearly tell students something they did not previously know.” This kind of teaching, he says, is simply “telling.”
What is wrong with teaching through telling? After all, hasn’t it been a very common teaching model for decades?
According to Finkel, the main drawback of teaching through telling is that reflection is done by the teacher, not by the student. Knowledge is transmitted—often in unstimulating fashion—as specific bits of information, which are notoriously hard to remember and often provided without context. When students are exposed to material they haven’t learned about before, they fill in the gaps with their prejudices and opinions. As teachers, we should want our students to acquire a deeper knowledge of a given subject matter, not just memorize facts and figures.
What I Gained by Refusing to Teach
The alternative to teaching through telling is what Finkel calls “teaching with your mouth shut.” In this model, teachers step back and become silent observers, rather than putting on a performance like an actor in a play. Instead of being “carriers of knowledge,” we become humble enough to say “I don’t know.”
Instead of tightly controlling the learning process, we allow students to find their own solutions, thus “creating circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.” Refusing to teach through telling is also refusing to accept the traditional view of what being an educator means.
Starting from the first class I taught this semester, I made a deliberate effort to step back from my role as “teacher” in the classroom. At first it was very strange for my students. They were expecting an authority figure, someone to tell them specifically what to do. But I did the opposite: I gave them general instructions for a class project, including some milestones and (flexible) deadlines, and then set the students free to complete the project on their own.
The first week, when a student asked for the “rules” surrounding the project, I simply repeated my instructions: “The only ‘rule’ is that we’re here to record a podcast on the future of technology. It is up to you to decide what you want to learn and how. I will listen to your ideas and help you when I consider it appropriate, but don’t expect me to say much.”
A Week Later...
Students started to feel like they “owned” the class. It struck me how they began listening intently and responding to each other. They asked questions and made discoveries on their own, and learned to work autonomously without relying on my guidance. The best part of all of this is that they developed a voice of their own.
But it wasn’t perfect. Students struggled with uncertainty, taking the initiative, being tolerant, and even having a certain respect for silence (because at first, we had a lot of that!) But they learned, and in the end, they gained a sense of ownership not only of the project, but of the class, since they alone were responsible for it.
How to Teach with Your Mouth ‘Shut’
1. Create a classroom environment that invites student participation.
2. Make a distinction between power and authority.
Power is the ability to make things happen whereas authority describes your relationship with your students. Give your students power in regards to their learning while maintaining your authority.
3. Listen intently and don’t intervene.
You’ll want to jump in and give instructions or advice, but resist the temptation. (I know how hard this is, believe me!) You’ll be surprised by what your students can do if you take a step back and let them control the learning process.
4. Use software that facilitates collaboration.
Find an online tool that allows students to learn with others. Choose one that has the flexibility that students need to develop their own processes, while making it easy for you to track their progress.
Rather than being a great actor and stealing the show, stepping from the front to the back of the classroom has been far more rewarding to me. My students are now collaborating with others, asking questions, and finding their own answers.
Best of all, they are finally learning.
Stefany Bolaños (@_StefyB) is part of the team at Learnhub. She also teaches an economics course at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, has published three children's books, and previously started a tutoring business.