This is the title of a book written by Donald Finkel, a former professor at the Evergreen State College. Unfortunately Dr. Finkel passed away in 1999 but his daughter Zoe loaned me this book after reading a draft of my essay about Peninsula school. The book sat on my desk for a while until I happened to take it to a bluegrass festival one weekend. Finding myself digitally deprived and with lots of unstructured time on my hands, I started reading the book. It took only a few pages before I was taken in by both, the book and the author. I wish I could’ve met professor Finkel, I wish I were a student in one of his seminars, and I wish every teacher would read this book.
Finkel’s exhorts readers to abandon the prevalent model of teaching as TELLING, He writes:
“Our natural, unexamined model for teaching is Telling…The fundamental act of teaching is to carefully and clearly tell students something they did not previously know. Knowledge is transmitted, we imagine through the act of telling.” What we think of as good teachers just do this in a more captivating way than the not so good ones.
This is the model we need to let go of because, as Finkel points out, numerous studies show that lectures as an instructional method do not deliver results when variables studied include retention of information after a course is over, transfer of knowledge to novel situations, development of skill in thinking or problem solving, or achievement of affective outcomes, such as motivation for additional learning or change in attitudes.
Instead of teaching by telling, Finkel argues that the most important role for a good teacher is to create conditions that inspire students to learn. He suggests that, “a teacher’s job is to shape the environment in a manner conducive to learning,” i.e. to create surrounding social and physical conditions that facilitate learning. Finkel approaches learning as a designer and carefully walks the reader through a series of thoughtful and practical classroom designs that facilitate learning, from writing workshops to open-ended seminars and co-teaching colloquia. He even incorporates lectures into some of his designs but these are surrounded by other types of interactions and are carefully inserted to achieve desired outcomes. Every learning design aims to create an intellectual community that propels participants to want to “figure things out” for themselves rather than for a grade. Finkel is a master of understanding social or community aspects of learning. He draws inspiration from John Dewey and Rousseau but makes theoretical discourse practical and accessible.
What I found particularly appealing about his writing is the respect and care with which Finkel writes about students. It is clear that he was deeply passionate about teaching and students, This is evident from reading some of the personal letters he and his students exchanged as a part of the learning process. Finkel always emphasizes that teaching is a learning experience for him—whether this involves participating in a seminar or a workshop along with students, sometimes without saying anything–reading students’ writings or writing to them. He does not hide the fact that there are the inherent hierarchies in the classroom setting or tricks students into engaging with the subject. He is transparent about what he is doing, arguing that what happens in the classroom is a learning experience in its own right, as important as the subject matter being discussed.
His approach epitomizes the dictum proposed by Rousseau in 1762: “the only instrument of education that can succeed is well-regulated freedom. “ I hope many more educators and policymakers read this remarkable book.