Embracing Opposites

A couple of years ago on this blog, I summarized “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process”, an important article by English professor Peter Elbow. His key point was that there is a tension between our obligation to our students, on the one hand, and our obligation to our discipline, on the other. In many ways, those are “contraries”, and yet we must learn to embrace both. If we are not committed to the discipline, we betray the students by offering a watered-down version of the subject. If we are not committed to the students, we betray the discipline by not promoting it to the next generation. We must commit to both.

In fact, there is more to this idea of embracing opposites.

Take course pacing. On the one hand, this requires forward motion. Without that, we lose the motivation of our strongest classroom allies, the ones who love our subject and can’t get enough of it. But it is also our responsibility to build in an adequate amount of review, which most students absolutely need if we want them to really master the material. It seems kind to go at a snail’s pace, but it isn’t really. It seems “rigorous” to maintain a breakneck pace, but it isn’t really. We must embrace both constant forward motion and eternal review, and avoid always choosing one over the other.

You probably noticed that this pair of opposites is a different manifestation of obligation to the discipline (forward motion) vs. obligation to the students (review). Another manifestation of this same tension is between “covering” the material, vs. responding to the realities of the class. Allowing either to always dominate is another form of betrayal. There is no way to have a one-size-fits-all version of a course, because every class is different, and in fact even different sections of the same class are different. Good teaching requires skillful navigation between those poles.

Or take lesson planning. Doing a given lesson a new way is stimulating for us as teachers, and some of that electricity is passed on to the students. On the other hand the amount of time and energy we have at our disposal is finite, and we cannot and should not constantly reinvent our lessons. If something worked last year, it is not a sin to try it again this year. Once again, we must embrace opposites, and make judgment calls about when to be creative and when to be efficient. As wise King Solomon (and Pete Seeger) put it, to everything there is a season.

Even within one class period, we need to embrace opposites: lecture vs. activity, hands-on vs. words-centered, formal vs. informal, discovery vs. direct instruction, controlling vs. letting go, right answer vs. process, giving a hint vs. refraining from giving a hint, and so on.

Beware of the education pseudo-guru who claims to have found “the way”. There is no one way.


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