This was the frustrating word that my professor kept saying to me as I stared at a pile of rubble in what used to be Philippi, Greece. After spending an entire semester at Harvard studying images and diagrams of ancient structures, I had to eschew all of that from my brain and look at a bunch of rocks and tell him exactly what I saw. No embellishment, no assumptions — just describe.
“A piece of marble, about a meter long, with a notch at one end,” I said.
The professor nodded. I continued to describe the assortment of rocks. My description began with rudimentary observations: a rock here, a marble there. Soon, however, those observations began to pile on to one another; with my words I was rebuilding the ancient edifice before the eyes of my professors and peers. At this moment, after studying five years of Greek, Latin, and ancient history and religion, the ancient world became real.
Learning is experiential. It is doing. It is a verb. We can read a hundred books and listen to a thousand lectures, but this just fills our heads with trivia. It remains trivial until we use it, until we go through the mechanics of communicating what we know, beginning with the concrete and then wading into the abstract.The act of communication causes the abstract to solidify and become clear.
For this reason, I stress expression when I am teaching. This can take many forms: writing, speaking, conversation, dramatization, art, etc. Through communication the little pieces of trivia in the students’ minds are stacked together, synthesized, creating a glorious cathedral.
Through the ebb and flow of discussion, I like to keep three simple rules in mind:
- Education is student-focused.
- Everyone in the classroom is a student (even the teacher).
- Every idea deserves a fair hearing.
By keeping these ideas in mind, I have created a culture of free inquiry in my classroom where students generally feel open, honest, and able to take risks, not fearful of making mistakes. By coming alongside them, I have been able to establish a rapport while still challenging them to think about various issues and ideas from different angles.
This relationship in the learning process is what fuels me as an educator.