September 11th, 2013

The Interaction Between Content, Character, and Teaching Style

By:

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between what we teach and how we teach. Part of that relationship is pretty obvious: If you teach something with problems to solve, you spend time problem-solving when you teach. If you teach a skill (like writing or dancing), you spend time providing examples (of good sentences or dance steps). But what I’ve been trying to sort out is something on a different level—the interaction between content, character, and teaching style.

Fashion was the metaphor that started this thinking. I know, some of us have no interest in the way we express things about who we are by what we wear. Clothes keep us covered and warm. Some of us (and I’m not just referring to children) are dressed by others who end up buying most (all, in the case of my spouse) of what we wear. But still, whether by design or happenstance, what we wear sends a message. If we want to, we can use clothes to create a style that says something about who we are. It can be as unique and individual as our faces.

Teaching style is also something we create and something through which our individuality can be reflected. Typically, when we think about teaching style, we equate it with the presentational aspects of teaching—we may gesture, move around, use eye contact, or vary our voice. All of these are avenues for self-expression. What we don’t think much about (or, perhaps more honestly, what I haven’t thought much about) is how content might also influence, not just how we teach, in terms of what we must do (solve problems or provide demonstrations), but how content might shape and influence our teaching styles.

I’m thinking content might be the “clothes” we wear when we teach.

Our relationship with what we teach is complex and emotional. Most of us are passionate about our content. We find it fascinating, challenging, and full of intellectual intrigue. Some of us have been teaching this stuff for years and are still deeply in love with it. We believe in it and know that it matters. I remember talking with a geologist who is a superb teacher. I asked what he thought made him so effective in the classroom. “Oh, it’s what I teach,” he said without hesitation. “It’s the content. I just happen to teach the most fascinating material. Without my rocks, I wouldn’t be much of a teacher.”

A relationship this important must influence how we teach in significant ways, but are those ways apparent to us? Now I’m wondering if the expression of style that makes teaching authentic and powerful isn’t conveyed more by how we “wear” our content than by how we gesture, use our voice, or manipulate the muscles in our face. Those aspects of content that we wear to class not only reveal things about the content, those outfits also convey things about us as human beings. When what we teach gets appropriately integrated with who we are, the results are dramatic—the style can be iconic, powerful, and beautiful. We recognize it even though we can’t always explain why it works so well.

Some of us dress boldly with our content, others opt for more classic connections, and then there are those of us who love eccentricity. There’s no one way or right way to dress with our content. What makes the style memorable—in other words, what makes it work—is how well it fits the person wearing it.

When I first start thinking about things I don’t understand well, metaphors help me find my way. They are the scaffolding that allows me to climb up for a closer look. But a metaphor isn’t the end of the story any more than the scaffold is the building. We don’t “wear” our content, exactly. But we do communicate things about it as we teach, and that communicates things about us. Take this as a first pass at trying to figure out how content and character get integrated into teaching style. And after that I’d love to understand how a teacher might go about creating a teaching style that maximizes the connection between the two.