Predictable teaching

flowersA colleague writes about a workshop she co-presented recently, in which participants generated their own questions and engaged in guided inquiry. The workshop went well and generated plenty of debate (one of its goals), but “some liked it more then others.” Knowing the presenters, I’m confident that the workshop was a big success, but there was clearly variation in how successful it was for different participants.

That kind of variation, or unpredictability, is what leads some teachers to prefer methods with clearly-defined objectives, carefully-orchestrated procedures, and techniques for keeping everyone “on task.” Methods like that, are seen as more predictable, hence easier to measure, repeat, and guarantee results.

But things are not always as they seem. When the emphasis is on the procedure, and not on the student’s own inquiry, one can ensure that the procedure is executed faithfully. The formal lecture is the epitome of that, with the timing and mode of delivery all specifiable in advance. But the student learning can actually be far less predicitable. When students are in a lecture hall, or even going through a highly-structured exercise, their minds can be far away. The predicitability for the teacher is matched by unpredictability for the learner.

On the other hand, when students are supported in their own inquiries, the teacher’s job can feel very unpredictable, and because of that scary, and even unprofessional. It can be unpredictable for the students as well, because true inquiry can lead into unknown territory. But what goes on in the interaction among students and teachers becomes more visible and manageable. Collaborative inquiry allows engagement with the student’s thought and action, while the so-called “structured lesson” may obscure what students really think and feel. When students’ work is highly constrained, we’re left with little insight into their learning; teaching becomes totally unpredictable.

Our quest for certainty in teaching thus leads us to adopt methods that actually increase the uncertainty. But there is no way to ensure predictable teaching and learning. As Amos Pettingill says in The White Flower Farm Garden Book (referring to a zone chart for planting):

As a guide for the experimentation we so freely encourage, the table opposite will be helpful. We must caution, however, that it is rife with half-truths–despite our best efforts at disclosure. We are dealing here with living things whose colors, habits, and general constitutions will vary with locale and with the skill of the individual gardener. This unpredictability, which strikes terror into the heart of the beginner, is in fact one of the glories of gardening. Things change, certainly from year to year and sometimes from morning to evening. There are mysteries, surprises, and always, lessons to be learned. After almost 40 years hard at it, we are only beginning.

5 thoughts on “Predictable teaching

  1. Pingback: Unpredictable teachers | Planetreflex

  2. This is a great post to think about at the end of the semester. Sometimes I think teachers want “clearly-defined objectives, carefully-orchestrated procedure” and so on so that they can validate their success (as limited and narrow as that may be). Without the teaching script, the teacher’s role is unpredictable and more difficult to navigate. And yet I think this may not be an either/or situation. If objectives and procedures are made and remade as we go along, maybe they can be productive.


  3. Pingback: Pylori paradox « Chip’s journey

  4. I went to hear Felice Frankel yesterday afternoon at Beckman. She runs the Envisioning Science program at Harvard and has another appointment at MIT. She was very articulate about bringing science and art together into the same room, early in any process of investigation. What one draws, one understands in new ways. She also posited that if we taught probability to kindergartners we would have much more flexible thinkers in the world.


  5. I received your ‘predictable teaching and learning’ while I was reading Michael Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’, and Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’. David Hawkins’s messing about, guided discovery and structured inquiry is also coming to the fore. I am trying to put all these together, and see how these explain some of my own life experience. I think it is one way to test theories. But it does not seem to be easy to precess for me!

    I feel that I have traveled through an interesting educational journey: from structured inquiry to messing about. I find it fascinating to compare and contrast these. Hope to talk this with you in person some time.


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