Learning to Cross the Road: What Do You Show Your Students?

Chicken crossing the road

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To show the squirrel it could be done.

Most of us attempt to teach our subjects by telling students things, that is, describing, identifying, defining, specifying, explaining, lecturing, etc.  We spend uncounted hours attempting to transmit our well-learned information and vital insights by clearly stating what we want students to know and understand.  While this may not be all we do in the classroom, describing the important ideas and concepts that make up our disciplines is typically our method of first impulse, and it can be quite rewarding because explaining things feels good and seems like real teaching.

And while there is certainly a place for such a pedagogical strategy in the classroom, and it does feel powerful and effective in the moment, it is also not unusual for this to produce frustration later on when we discover from assessments, or from later attempts to reference earlier material, that our explaining things did not lead to a fundamental understanding that we’d hoped to convey.  (“I told them this several times in class and even wrote it on the board—how can they not know this?”)

Happily, there are many teaching strategies we can draw upon in addition to basic information giving.  The one I want to highlight here is based on the above response to the age-old joke about why the proverbial chicken crossed that road.  In this punch line, it was not to achieve some personal goal (such as getting to the other side, as the cliché goes), but rather, the chicken here is attempting to teach something, that is, trying to help a hapless squirrel learn how to accomplish such a feat.  And the chicken’s teaching strategy was not explaining to the squirrel the finer points of road crossing, perhaps with impeccable (get it?) powerpoint slides, but rather for the chicken to teach the squirrel through direct showing.  The question for us to reflect on is how can we better use showing, certainly a powerful means of communicating, to increase student learning and retention?

Step One: Let go

First, we need to let go of the idea that simply telling students what we want them to know is always enough for learning.  This should not be controversial since we all have incredible amounts of evidence of its inadequacy for many students.  Yet we cling to this.  We believe this is what teaching is.  We persist in the face of our exasperation at the outcomes for many students.  We decide students didn’t learn because they weren’t listening, weren’t thinking, weren’t working hard enough.            

We also tend to believe this is primarily how we, ourselves, learned.  But were the endless lectures really the ticket?  How much of the lectures from classes not in our discipline did we retain?  What was different?  Probably many things, but clearly this suggests that our own knowledge must have come from more than absorbing lectures.  We must let go of the simple notion that information transmission is really the way our students can best learn our material.  While it may have value, it can also be quite limited.  Recognizing this can motivate us to use other (perhaps more powerful) methods, such as showing.

Step Two: Consider what students can tell just by looking at us

Second, we need to recognize that this powerful method of learning, that is showing, is happening in our classrooms regardless of what else we try to do.  In fact, we need to ask ourselves what students are learning about our discipline just by looking at us.  If all we do is go on and on about this theory or that idea, regardless of whether they understand and remember those points, we may also be showing that all our field has to offer is an endless (and perhaps boring) catalog of terms and concepts.  But does this mass of knowledge reveal where our passion for this material comes from and why it still abides?  Does it really show students (not just tell them) why our content is so important to the world?  If not, the question becomes how we can be more thoughtful and effective in showing our disciplinary worldview and its power, and not just by describing it.

Step Three: Find ways to show our students more

Third, we need to look for ways and places where we can better harness the power of showing in the classroom.  Examples:

What images (instead of just words) do we provide students that really reveal our disciplinary worlds?  Our brain focuses more powerfully on what we see than what we hear.  How can we make such images more central in our daily classes? 

What inspires students to reflect?  Beyond feeding students content, can we encourage the kinds of reflection we have engaged in that excites and sustains our fascination with the field?  Do we ever reveal our own inner struggles and triumphs, demonstrate the process of reflecting, and show its effects on our motivation and understanding?  Is there some way we can open a door for our students into the conversations we have with ourselves?  Imagine the power if we could inspire students to do this themselves (rather than just describing to them the results of our own reflections)?

We have learned also (and perhaps more) from the kinds of experiences we have had in applying our disciplines in the wide world.  Are there ways to provide experiences as well as information, even within the confines of the classroom?  How much more memorable are experiences than memorized information?  Might such experiences make presented concepts and content come alive?

There are likely many ways to reveal, not just talk about, our critical content.  The chicken didn’t just tell the squirrel how to cross that road.  The chicken supplied a demonstration, provided an image, revealed the process by his action, and in so doing invited the squirrel to engage in the experience of crossing the road.  Can we likewise show our students how to cross our disciplinary roads to open their way to a wider world on the other side?

Jack Hill is a professor of psychology at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA.  He is chair of the Department of Social Sciences and has a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

If you’d like to contribute your own joke and essay for consideration in the “Jokes as Parables for Teaching and Learning” series, contact Professor Dom Caristi at Ball State: dgcaristi@bsu.edu.