The pull and counter-pull of teaching

Education is filled with opposing principles, where neither is absolutely correct. When you’re learning a musical instrument, you need a lot of technical exercises, but you also need to learn to play actual pieces. When you’re proving a mathematical theorem, you should be precise with your steps, but sometimes, if you have an insight, it’s good to take a leap. (Then you can backtrack and fill in the steps.) And so on. Most teachers have certain leanings, but those leanings are not the whole of their understanding or of the truth. Often I find that when I tip just a little bit against myself, interesting things happen.

For instance, my philosophy courses have focused on reading and discussion of texts—for good reasons. The texts are compelling, and the students approach them thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Yet when I give students a chance to take off with their own ideas, I find that they bring forth some of their best work. The moral is not that I should abandon the texts, but rather that I should vary the type of assignment now and then.

My ninth-grade students are studying rhetoric and logic. Most recently, they read G. K. Chesterton’s essay “The Fallacy of Success.” We examined how Chesterton takes apart the idea of success, and how his reference to the myth of King Midas enhances his argument. They did well with this.

Then I thought: why not have them take apart a concept themselves? I had them choose a word from a list, to which they contributed (the options included happiness, justice, power, friendship, solitude, collaboration, courage, wisdom, and more). They were to (a) explain how the term is commonly understood; (b) explain what’s wrong or incomplete about that understanding; (c) explain why it’s important to come to a better understanding of the term; and (d) offer a more complete definition. This began as classwork, with one sentence for each part; later, they expanded their responses into an essay.

I am reluctant to repeat or paraphrase my students’ responses, since I don’t have their permission. I can say that they were all interesting, and some quite moving. Much came out of this exercise. Yet it was informed by our reading and discussion of “The Fallacy of Success.” There need not be a contradiction between analyzing someone else’s essay and writing your own (with your own ideas). In the best of scenarios, the two support each other. Still, it isn’t just a matter of striking a “balance”; the correct proportion may be an unbalanced one.

Back to the original point: our educational leanings need something to pull against them. Very few opinions or preferences in education contain the whole truth. We may go ahead and lean—the leanings do matter–but allow for a bit of sway now and then, as it may turn out to be the best thing that happened all year.


  1. I love that the “do it on your own” activity follows a thorough analysis of an argument structure worthy of emulating – and that you kept the structure for the students’ own analysis. They could directly apply what they learned in a personal way. I also appreciate that you had them think about their whole argument first and made the task less daunting by having them start with a very short response to each part.