Benjamin and I were having one of these enormous and confusing twitter conversations about this (probably not-quite-accurate) Galileo quote, and what educators mean when we talk of discovery more broadly.
First, Benjamin’s take, as I understand it.
Ben thinks that this quote is badly wrong. It is possible to teach people things! And there is plenty of knowledge that you simply cannot just discover all on your own. Even worse: discovering knowledge within yourself? Show me precisely where it is, within yourself, that your knowledge of my middle name is. The answer is that it’s not within yourself, obviously.
This quote is incredibly wrong, Ben says. And this makes it problematic for professional educators to share it, because it completely undermines the importance of the profession. If teachers don’t teach, then who needs teachers? Kids don’t need school if they can’t be taught. If it’s all about discovery — even worse, discovery about yourself — then you can’t really be taught. Teachers and schools, then, are useless.
Here was my question to Ben, though: if this is so incredibly and badly wrong, and if it so terribly misunderstands the work of teaching…then why does it appeal to professional educators? Shouldn’t professional educators be the first to understand how badly this rhetoric misrepresents the work?
I didn’t get a chance to hear Ben’s full answer on Twitter — he said it had to with the culture of teaching — but either way, his take is that professional educators have fallen into a characterization of their own work that is badly, badly wrong.
Now, my take.
I get suspicious of arguments like Ben’s. Are teachers badly misunderstanding their own work? I guess it’s possible, but why would we do something so self-destructive? And how come this idea, which is so obviously and clearly wrong, appeals to so many teachers?
I’m not saying that this is a knock-down argument against Ben’s take. But it makes me start to think — is there another way to interpret something like the quote Tracy shared?
I think that there is, and it has to do with the various meanings that “teach” and “discover” have.
What does it mean to teach? It could mean a few things:
- “I taught it to him” <–> “I explained it to him”
- “I taught it to him” <–> “I directly caused him to understand it”
- “I taught it to him” <–> “I set the conditions of his understanding”
- “I taught it to him, but he didn’t understand it” <–> “I attempted to cause learning, but failed”
(See here for more on the various meanings of “teaching.”)
What does it mean to discover?
- “I discovered it” <–> “I was the first to know it”
- “I discovered it for myself” <–> “I was the cause of my learning of it”
- “I discovered it for myself” <–> “I discovered the meaning for myself”
The quote that Tracy shared is
“We cannot teach people anything. We can only help them discover it within themselves.”
My most generous read of it is
“We cannot directly cause anyone to understand something. We can only help them discover the meaning for themselves.”
Which is absolutely true.
In fact, maybe it’s so obviously true that the statement becomes banal. Why would teachers make a big deal out of this statement? I think it’s because so many people outside education think that teaching involves directly causing kids to know stuff. Why don’t you just teach it? is something every educator has heard.
People who haven’t taught don’t typically understand the things that can get in the way of directly causing kids to know — their prior knowledge, their personalities, their attention, their peers, their priorities.
If my read is correct, it also is a pedagogy-neutral observation. Kids need to discover meanings. When I was in college, I often made sense of a teacher’s lecture — that was me discovering ideas for myself, while sitting in a lecture.
Ben and my conversation is one that has been had over and over about constructivism. For example, here is a passage from a really fantastic piece called “A Reformulation of Telling”:
When teachers say that “you can’t teach” it’s just saying this — that all meaning has to come from the student, at the end of the day. Though the entire point of teaching is to help kids make this meaning — that’s the work!
I see no reason why this understanding of teaching is incompatible with public esteem. It’s serious work, and the public could understand that this is serious work.
It seems to me that Ben is not convinced by my rereading. If I understand him correctly, he thinks that when teachers share these quotes online or talk this way, they really mean that you can’t cause kids to learn stuff and that kids need to discover knowledge on their own.
I disagree. I think that this reading is both possible and likely, given that it doesn’t involve teachers badly mischaracterizing the nature of our own work. I’ve literally never met a teacher or seen teaching that was centered on “not teaching” as Ben reads it, and in fact that’s impossible to do while meeting external learning standards. Why would teachers engage in talk that directly contradicts what they’re doing in classrooms? It doesn’t make sense to me.
It would be great to do a bunch of interviews with teachers to try to gauge their meaning, if they assent to “discovery” talk. Has anyone looked into this? It might be a helpful thing for someone to study.
Here is where I’ll agree with Ben, though: there is a cost to teacher talk that emphasizes discovery and “not teaching.” It’s a line that is just waiting to be misheard, and whether that’s fair or not is irrelevant.
This sort of talk is easy to misunderstand, because of the various meanings of “teach” and “discover.” (I might as well have written a long post explaining to those who engage in discovery talk how that quote could be misunderstood in the other direction!)
Teachers know how important it is to know the landscape of potential misconceptions when they’re teaching math. If you care about helping people understand what the work of teaching is really about, we also need to take people’s misconceptions about our work into consideration.
Talking about teaching and learning is hard. It’s really really hard. It’s partly hard because the work is so invisible, and because the physical manifestations of that work (explaining, sitting, writing) are poor stand-ins for it. There is no agreed-on language, and many of the fiercest debates in education are best seen as desperate calls for clarity, each person silently begging the other to learn how they mean. That is what I think is happening here.