Teaching Is Not Telling

by Nick Diaz


“Teaching is not telling”.  Wise words spoken many years ago by a well-known Frederick County Public Schools administrator.  This man is still working in the trenches, down at the school level, where he continues to make things happen. 

During my long career with FCPS, as a middle-school math teacher, there have been many times when I’ve thought about this old principal’s adage, that teaching is not telling.  Two ways this quotation may be interpreted:

 1.  “Teaching is NOT telling”.  This is so true.  Teaching is about leadership, about persuading students to do what is right for themselves, their families, and their school.  Teaching is about persuading students that what the leader of the class, the teacher, is doing, is worth doing.  Teaching is coming up with different classroom strategies in the attempt to persuade as many students as possible to teach themselves how to think mathematically and solve problems.  Teaching is about making students believe, after successfully tackling a new concept, that they are the ones who discovered and/or applied the concept. 

Telling is bossing, commanding; teaching, on the other hand, is persuading.  President Truman said it well:  “The power of the Presidency resides in the President’s ability to persuade”.   True of any job, isn’t it?  Particularly teaching.  The Presidency is about persuading, not telling.  So is teaching.  So is any vocation that directly involves human beings. 

This does not mean that a teacher should take the back seat in a classroom setting.  This does mean that the teacher should be “the sage on the stage”.  Teaching is acting — decisively, forcefully, commanding a certain presence.

As well-known Virginia mathematics teacher Vern Williams states, “Students expect their teacher to provide them with something that perhaps they can’t learn or do on their own. The teacher’s job is to stand in front of students  and offer his wisdom, experiences, and his in-depth knowledge of content.” 

In the attempt to be students’ buddies, some teachers, particularly new ones, are too willing to not establishing, or simply give up their commanding presence.  Williams continues, “When in the classroom, the teacher should be the center of students’ universe, because he actually has something to offer them.”

(This must certainly show Mr. Williams’ attitude toward “constructivism”, eh?) 

It is only by establishing such commanding presence that the teacher may begin to teach, as opposed simply to tell.  “Teachership” must be earned; telling, by contrast, is cheap, and anyone can do it — most often ineffectively. 

2.  “Teaching is ‘NOT TELLING”.   My last contribution to www.thetentacle.com was about the difference between arithmetic and mathematics, and how this adds to the difficulties many new middle-school students face when making the transition from elementary to middle school math classes. 

Very often I hear complaints from students and parents such as, “Mr. Diaz don’t explain nothing!  He won‘t tell us how to do this math!  ” 

This is correct.  I don’t tell; I teach.  Teachers who tell don’t teach; they just tell. 

Typical scenario:  Let’s say that, going over a homework assignment, I state that the answer to #6 is 22.  Question by a student: 

  •  — How do you get 22?
  •  — Simple.  22 is 18 plus 4. 
  •  — But how do you get that 18, or that 4?
  •  — I don’t know.  How do you get 18, or 4?
  •  — I don’t know!  You tell me!
  •  — No, I won’t.  You figure it out. 

Then I may go into what I call a “silent lecture”, in which I figuratively zip up my mouth, then go into a Marcel Marceau imitation, pointing out this or that on the board or screen. 

Gradually, one at a time, I hear that glorious sound, “Ah!”, or “Oh!”, or … you get the picture. 

I unzip my mouth.  I begin to trace the problem by doing it backwards, starting at the end and marching to the beginning. 

This is teaching.  Teaching is NOT TELLING.  Teaching is persuading students that it is their education that matters, and that they’re the ones ultimately responsible for it, not me.

A number of students would much rather have someone tell them how to do a problem, or tell them how to perform an algorithm, or delineate all the steps, one by one, for students to memorize.  In other words, “Just tell me how to do it”. 

Translation:  “Don’t make me think — I’d rather remain a robot.”

Not in my classroom you don’t!  Teachers must learn to resist the temptation to “be nice” and tell students the procedures, the answers, the mechanics of mathematics (or music, or literature, or history…)  In other words, teachers should convince students, parents, and unenlightened administrators that teaching is NOT TELLING, that NOT TELLING is not mean or vengeful, but a necessary component in the  development of students’ disciplined independence.  It’s a painful process, but learning is a form of change, and change is, by its very nature, painful. 

    — How do you do #6? 
  • — I don’t know.  (Well, I do know, but I lie a lot…)  How do you think I do #6?
  • — I don’t know.  That’s why I’m asking you how you got 22 for the answer.
  • — I don’t know.  How do you think I got 22 for the answer?
  • — (Student becomes exasperated, which is exactly what I want) I don’t know.  I guess you add 18 plus 4?
  • — I guess so.  Why did you add 18 plus 4?

(Increased exasperation). 

  • — Because 18 is 6 x 3 and 4 is 2 x 2.  Is that it?
  • — I guess so.  If you say so.  (Of course, that’s just the right solution). 

Students will soon learn that asking Mr. Diaz a question results in having the question thrown back at them.  That’s teaching — NOT TELLING. 

  • “Teaching is NOT telling”. 
  • “Teaching is ‘NOT TELLING’”. 
  • Same thing, only different…

Editors Note:  This column first appeared on The Tentacle on January 22, 2008.

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