Updated: Aug 26, 2018
Last month, I took a fly fishing class in Jackson, Wyoming. It was for me what tutoring is for my students: a one-on-one session in which efficacy of practical skills is dependent on mastery of concepts. Until then, I had never been fly fishing, so I made sure to schedule my one-on-one lesson with an outstanding guide, a jack-of-all trades who owns his own fishing business, guides national and international fishing tours, and works in aviation. Here are four things he taught me about teaching and learning:
My favorite activities are ones where learning everything is truly impossible.
Many of my students have heard me repeat Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “As the circle of light expands, so too does the circumference of darkness.” This quote expresses the mindset that is necessary to genuinely learn. I find achievements that are contingent upon mastering a finite set of knowledge to be less fulfilling than ones that are contingent upon the continued mastery of infinite knowledge. And really, in what pursuits is there ever a finite set of knowledge? I’d conjecture very few, and further conjecture that the belief that any knowledge set is finite is a miscalculation. From fishermen to sommeliers (and kudos to you if you know one of each), their success lies not solely in their prowess, but more so in their experience, knowledge, and good judgment, none of which one can have if he or she focuses on a singularly concrete achievement; rather, our goals should be mindsets and behaviors that are applicable to a wide range of achievements. Along those lines, to seek to know everything is misfire; to seek to know more and more is the best path.
"Lessons must culminate in practical application."
Teachers should teach as if they're not in a classroom.
Perhaps this lesson seems paradoxical at face value—aren’t classrooms the first places that come to mind when we think about teaching and learning? Here’s what I mean: if schools and teachers lose sight of their duty to be thorough, they can end up teaching students to be “good at school” rather than good at critically thinking, which ends up eradicating the genuineness of learning. In the same way that conceptual knowledge is the foundation to the successful application of practical skills, the application of practical skills won’t be secured without going into the arena. This mindset isn’t just suitable for fishing, but even for seemingly “hands-off” activities such as English. On the contrary, English, like all other activities, is necessarily hands-on: any abstract concept must eventually concretize, and to teach completely, lessons must culminate in practical application. Teachers who consciously say to themselves, “this classroom happens to be our current space, but it is by no means the terminal boundary of my teaching,” will necessarily generate greater buy-in, motivation, and success among their students. Most of us can easily become good at school, but developing independence as critical thinkers is a much more challenging (and gainful) pursuit.
"Sharing one’s subject knowledge enriches his or her own experience as a student of that subject."
Teachers must be passionate about teaching specifically, not just their content area.
My guide was an amazing fisherman. Period. Regardless of the fact that I arrived knowing virtually nothing about fly fishing, as a professional teacher and tutor myself, it was clear to me that this guide spends his life learning from every fisherman he encounters, reading innumerable literature on the subject, and accumulating a surplus of first-hand experiential wisdom that he regularly reflects on. What, then, would compel him to teach fly fishing in general, let alone to a total novice? It’s this: sharing one’s subject knowledge enriches his or her own experience as a student of that subject. In other words, teaching—which perhaps is the ultimate form of sharing—makes the teacher’s practice more enjoyable than it would be if he or she just studied privately. This is what many teachers miss. Many unconsciously see themselves as experts, which they hopefully are, and then misjudge their students who either aren’t excelling or are falling behind. This mindset punishes everyone, because the kids who are excelling might actually be excelling in the practice of “Taking Mr./Mrs. X’s class” instead of excelling in the actual subject matter. Similarly, the kids who seem to be falling behind probably don’t have a subject-specific issue; rather, because the teacher hasn’t consciously identified as one who teaches students newunderstandings, there is only one, limited entry point to the course concepts, which will only work for a minority of students. I’m passionate about English for sure—reading and writing are my life—but even more than English, I’m passionate about teaching others to develop confidence in their reading and writing skills, which infinitely reciprocates my own passion and adds value to others’ passions, whether they be English or not.
"It’s knowing your river that maximizes your ability to successfully apply your knowledge and skills."
"Even if you know everything about the fish you're pursuing and the bait you're using, if you don't know the river, you're knowledge doesn't matter."
My guide casually said this to me verbatim, and it resonated with me so much that I asked him to hold on while I wrote it down. To me, it especially related to test prep: so many students prepare for tests by memorizing 1000s of vocabulary words and completing practice books cover-to-cover by themselves, and then don’t see the improvements in their scores that they expected their hard work to produce. Even though they became experts on their fish and bait, they never got to know the river, which, for them, is the test itself—it’s structure, traps, time constraints, directions, patterns, content, and purpose. Knowledge per se is not the primary attribute that standardized tests assess; for example, we all know how to read, so no tests will be looking to prove that. What they assess, which is what all tests should assess, is the test-taker’s ability to apply the knowledge that he or she is expected to arrive to the test with. It’s knowing your river that maximizes your ability to successfully apply your knowledge and skills.