Telling is Not Teaching: On Task and Performance

I teach a semester long course on African History, dedicating about a week to the study of Islam and its early spread into North and the West Africa. One key idea I want students to understand by the end of our week-long unit is this: The Qur’an is to Islam what Jesus is to Christianity: both are the sacred presence in the world. Students (and most people, perhaps) would likely believe that the Bible is the Christian equivalent of the Qur’an, but this isn’t exactly the case. If Jesus was God made man, the Qur’an is God made book. The idea has profound implications for the role of the Qur’an and Islamic art, too. Yet every year on a summative assessment a noticeable number of students continue to miss this point.

After my first year teaching this idea my first impulse was this: explain it better next year! Then in my second year, after achieving similar results, my next move was to explain it better, repeat it several times, and do it more loudly! Then, after three years of students missing this question I tried all of the above, and began our brief work with this idea by telling them: “I guarantee some of you will get this wrong on the test!” Their incredulous eyes lit up. He’s telling us this will be on the test? He’s emphasizing that some of us will get it wrong? What’s going on here? I figured- I’ve got ’em. There’s no way they’ll miss it this year! Then they did.

But I had explained this idea to them so with such enthusiasm! I was super clear! I made them perk up by issuing a (kind of) humorous prediction/warning! I sent up flairs! In other words, I did a lot of things that involve a lot of I statement. Despite all the wonderful work I was doing, they were still just listening… or not.

Here’s what I did wrong: assuming that telling is teaching. It often isn’t. Or, to put it another way, it often isn’t enough for concepts to stick or have any kind of deep and lasting meaning for a learner. I also misaligned the task (what I’m asking students to do) with this specific content objective. The idea was too challenging for me to simply tell students about it.

The thing is though, I know this. I knew this. So what was my problem? I think it might relate to the “curse of knowledge” – that teacher familiarity with facts, concepts, or ways of thinking dulls them to the needs of students who come to you with almost no knowledge of the topics you’ll consider. What seemed simple enough to me (albeit profound) was nowhere near simple – or perhaps just incredibly counter-intuitive (of course the answer has to be the Bible!) for many of them. I considered that this was a kind of low-level enough concept that I could just tell them about it and have them jot down some notes. Which brings me to the “instructional core” and the idea of task.

I’ll be drawing here from a terrific book called Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning (Harvard Education Press).

See the above? Simple, right? But I think we can lose site of it and over-complicate our thinking. So, here are some key implications of the instructional core- or, perhaps a better name for it would be the “learning core”:

There are only three ways to improve student learning at scale:

  • The first is to increase the level of knowledge and skill that the teacher brings to the instructional process.
  • The second is to increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn.
  • And the third is to change the role of the student in the instructional process.

In his work on teaching and learning, Walter Doyle situates the instructional task at the center of the learning core. The “instructional task is the actual work that students are asked to do in the process of instruction—not what teachers think they are asking students to do, or what the official curriculum says that students are asked to do, but what they are actually asked to do.”

Importantly, task predicts performance. I’ll return to that idea below.

The authors of the book I cited above write, “The single biggest observational discipline we have to teach people in our networks is to look on top of the students’ desks rather than at the teacher in front of the room.”

So, what was the task I had asked my students of Islam to engage in? Listening. That was it. Perhaps note-taking. These are pretty low level tasks. Consider alternatives: analyze, synthesize, construct, debate, write-to-think, make an argument, etc. Placed alongside these kinds of tasks, listening feels pretty lame. But the thing is- walk into most secondary school classrooms in America on any given day and what you’ll see is just that- students just listening. This is particularly true in history/social studies classrooms, a sad fact that is so at odds with the beauty of the discipline.

As Jennifer Gonzalez reminded us recently at Cult of Pedagogy, to learn, students need to DO something.

So what could I have done as an alternative to my approach of “listen to me explain my heart out and blow your minds by telling you this will be on the test!” Here’s an easy one: I could have had them write for 3 minutes, without stopping, about why this new idea is counter-intuitive, exploring as best they could why the more obvious answer is wrong. They then could have explained their thoughts to a small group, followed by a whole-class share out. Cult of Pedagogy has a great list of alternatives I could have considered, so do check them out.

My big takeaway was this: I usually consider myself to be a pretty good teacher and I had missed (three years in a row) the simple but central fact of the necessity of focusing on the quality of the task as it connected to this fairly important learning outcome.

Task predicts performance. Consider for yourself, whether you’re a teacher, teacher coach/evaluator, or administrator not what the teacher is doing, but what is in front of the students in the classroom. What are the tasks they are being asked to perform? What kind of imaginative work is involved? What level of problem is being solved? In my case, what kind of task is better suited to helping students develop an understanding of a concept (hint: it wasn’t listening.) Focus less on what the teacher says, or the standards say, or the curriculum says and consider: What kinds of tasks do students spend the bulk of their time with on any given day? Relatedly, is that task valuable? If we want students to be good listeners, let’s have them do more listening. If we want them to become analytical problem solvers, let’s have them solve more problems. If we say we are training our students to be “critical thinkers,” then let’s focus on the day to day tasks that develop that orientation.

Peter Hatala


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