Monday, December 15, 2008

Teaching and Learning Books that Aren't About Teaching and Learning

By now there are dozens of books that tell educators how to ensure that their students learn, or that teach administrators how to create schools that support learning. Some of them are very good; I'd be a much better teacher and administrator if I had only Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do and John Tagg's The Learning Paradigm College on my shelf.

There are lots of books of equal value for teachers and administrators, though, that aren't explicitly about teaching and learning.

Here are two of my favorites: Bernie Glassman and Rick Fields' Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters and Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The books couldn't be more different--one is brief, the other long; one is about Zen practice and the other about how healthy cities work. But at their core are a couple of principles that have a lot to say to teachers and administrators.

One. Close, repeated engagement with one thing is a sure path to learning. Glassman's book is at one level about how the ritual of cooking day after day for a community of people leads the cook to understand food, community, suffering, his transient nature, and the way to find one's way. Jacobs embodied the same sort of engagement, walking the streets of Greenwich Village day after day, noticing the relationships, structures, and habits of healthy communities. Only then did she embark on the research necessary to write a book that upended conventional city planning.

Two. Planning only gets an organizer (of a school, or a town, or a sangha, or any other community) so far. Beyond establishing and supporting the habits that are the basis of the community, community members have to discover how they work to learn and help others do the same. Glassman's book is full of the unpredictable, and of his unwillingness to predict how things would turn out. Jacobs book decries planning and zoing for their desire to stamp out the diversity of buildings, jobs, and people that allow real community to emerge.

So here is the challenge for teachers and administrators. How do you balance repetition and unpredictability? And how do you do it regularly, on a large scale, and for all sorts of people?

This is a vital challenge, if only because so much of our educational system does exactly the opposite. We prefer short-term (a couple of hours a week for a semester at most) engagement over repetition, but assume that short-term engagement can lead to some sort of predictable outcome. Why?

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