Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

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  1. George Larson says:

    Albert Einstein: ”I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

    Einstein was not known for his great teaching. It would be interesting to know what conditions Einstein had in mind.

  2. George Larson says:

    Here are some other quotes from Einstein about education:

    Example isn’t another way to teach, it is the only way to teach.

    Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

    Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.

    The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.

    If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough

    It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

    I think the quote, ”I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”, is an incomplete description of Einstein’s view

  3. I’d really like to see a good source for that quote, which doesn’t sound like Einstein.

    And he has had his name put on so many things — like the famous “insanity” definition — that he almost certainly did not say.

  4. It amazes me how apt the sticky web and velcro analogies are. When my oldest was in preschool, we shipped packages to deployed soldiers. He was asking why, and I attempted to explain the Taliban as ‘people who didn’t want people to be able to make their own choices, including about what to wear, whether to go to school, etc’. At the end of K, we came across something about MLK. His disbelief as I attempted to explain segregation was evident. As I talked, he said ‘Oh, like the Taliban, not wanting people to be able to choose what they do’. At that point, I decided that the core knowledge curriculum (that we use for homeschooling) was going to be invaluable at giving him enough ‘hooks’ to hang new things on.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      He may very well hear that from a teacher, with the possible addition that the Taliban build schools and hospitals. “Patty Murray”, congresscritter from, iirc, WA state.

      • I was intrigued that he came up with that without any teacher input (he’s homeschooled, and I had never linked the 2 in my head, much less my teaching)…he just linked 2 groups of ‘not letting people do what they want’ and saw it all as bad. We’re big on the idea that people can make their own choices, but can’t force others to agree with them, and I’m finding that kids do pretty well with that. But, as they learn more history, my kids are learning that bad guys aren’t an isolated incident and that, as they crop up somebody has to stop them or everybody has to live with them.

  5. Patty Murray is Washington state’s senior senator and now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. So, if they refuse to pass a budget his year, again, it will be even more her fault than it was last year, and the year before, and the year before that.

    Her most famous phrase in that comment about Bin Laden was that he had been building “day care” centers.

    We’re in the best of hands.