Teach the question

The worst lecture I ever sat through as an undergraduate was a fill-in-the-blanks lecture. The professor would a drop key phrase from every other sentence or so and say, "Anyone? Anyone?" Pause. Then say the phrase. 

"So in 1963," he would say, "Martin Luther King planned __________________. Anyone? Anyone? The March on Washington. This was a major step for the civil rights movement. It was a march for __________________. Anyone? Jobs and freedom. Civil rights and economic rights. So King stood in front of the _________________. Anyone? No? Lincoln Memorial."

It was terrible. 

You know the information, I wanted to scream after every class. We don't. You tell us

About half the lecture, it felt like, was dedicated to calling attention to the awkwardness of the students sitting there, not knowing a specific word. The main point or the real point, as I took it, was that we should know all this stuff. We shouldn't need to be told. But then, really, why were we even there?

I did fine in the course, as I recall. But I l left every class session exhausted from the stress of those blanks. 

 Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

Teaching prep for Great Depression and World War II

A teacher now, I feel the temptation of the fill-in-the-blanks lecture. I can feel the pull to that kind of pedagogy. I worry about whether my students know basic facts, basic names and details. I think before I get into tricky questions or complicated historical and historiographical issues, I need to make sure they know the foundational stuff. Start with the simple stuff, the info every educated person should know about the subject, and build from there.

I think that way and then my notes for class start to take the shape of a Wikipedia article. "They gotta know this," I think, "and they should know that. And it would be embarrassing if I did the whole course without covering this other thing." And then I just have a pile of information to recite, and it's pretty boring. I find it boring, the students find it boring, and then I'm half way through a lecture trying to engage them somehow and I start leaving empty spaces in my sentences, hoping to God a student chimes in with a name to save me from my own fill-in-the-blank lecture.

"So in the first 100 days," I say, "Roosevelt launched a bunch of new programs. AAA. Did anyone catch what that stands for, in the reading? What about NRA? Anybody? We need to talk about the TVA too. What's the TVA?"

There's just a prairie of silence. It's terrible.

The best class I had as an undergraduate went a little different. The professor came in and set his stuff down and he said, "here's what I don't know." He said, "here's something I'm wrestling with, when I read the assigned reading for today, something I'm trying to think my way through ..."

And then he launched into ... it wasn't a lecture. It was more like thinking out loud.

I didn't know, the first time I saw it, if this professor was pulling a kind of stunt, pretending to have a question he actually already knew the answer to, as if this were just a more elaborate fill-in-the-blank kind of exercise. Or if he really didn't know. But it seemed like he really didn't know.

He phrased and then re-phrased his questions. He framed his speech as a speculative venture. "Maybe," he would say, "the way to say it is ..." He would try out answers, and then realize they didn't work or weren't quite right and abandon them and start over with the question again, trying again, in another direction. 

And after 15 minutes, or sometimes longer, he would stop. He would stand there with chalk in his hand. Or sit down, leaning forward at the seminar table. And he would say what I had never heard another professor say. He would say, "I don't know." 

And then he'd say, "what do you think?"

It was absolutely electric. It was still fill-in-the-blank, in a way, but the questions mattered. The blank was complicated, because it was important. The questions practically pulsed with urgency. He didn't know. He was asking us. The question was a real question. What was the best way to say it?

Each class, as Pete Blum constructed it, was about thinking. He would think out loud in front of us and invite us to participate and come along, or just watch if we weren't ready, but the class was this space of vulnerability and experiment, a place to be interested and figure out how to be interested and figure out how to respond to what you don't know and be better at not knowing and learn, most of all, how you could go about learning to know what you didn't know. Each class was an essay, in the sense of "attempt," and there was a very real chance the attempt would fail. But it could work, too. 

And either way, it was exciting. And either way, it was engaging.

I return to this idea, in my classes. It's something I try to remember to do, teaching history. The pedagogical lesson I take away is, don't teach "information." Teach the question.

There's always a concern about coverage in history classes, and that's a real concern, but if I focus on a question or a problem that's interesting to me, I engage the students. I pull them in. I show them why I'm interested and what's interesting and how I think historically, and in the process of doing that coverage just happens.

This week, teaching my Great Depression and World War II class, I thought out loud about Franklin Roosevelt's outreach to clergy in 1935. He wrote ministers across the country to ask their input on the Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. Was it cynical? Was it earnest? I've seen different historians describe it different way. But I don't know. And I'm not sure how to decide, actually. I wanted to think about it. So I came into class and set my stuff down and said, "here's something I don't know." I said, "I just want to think out loud, here, and maybe you can help me think about how to think about this?" 

In the process, I ended up explaining the failures and the setbacks for Roosevelt's programs, politically and especially legally, and how he responded with a plan to pack the Supreme Court, and that was a political disaster, and the "Second New Deal" needed public support. Coverage, that is to say, happened. More importantly, I think, I modeled what's actually interesting about doing history.

I didn't preform "expert." I showed my class how I investigate, how I venture a question, how I tentatively articulate what it is I want to know, and then try to think it through, and figure it out. I had to be vulnerable, because I needed to show them a question's only interesting if you could be wrong. So I thought about different ways to phrase the question, and what kind of evidence I could look for, and how to read the evidence, and the difference that different assumptions would make in that whole process. Then I said to them, "I don't know. What do you think?" and we had a conversation about it.

It was a good class. 

It's scary to teach out of my ignorance. I think I'm supposed to know and it's my job to know. But the question is what's interesting. Teach the question. Embrace the risk of the question and teach what's interesting.