As mentioned in my previous blog post, I had the opportunity to attend the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference this past week. On Thursday morning, I had the occasion to listen to Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA. In the course of his talk, Mr. Lehmann spoke at length about the term instructional delivery. In his talk, he made a statement something along the lines of:
We don’t deliver. Pizza men deliver. We teach.
While I can appreciate the spirit of the point that Mr. Lehmann was trying to make – that teaching is a process that actively engages the learner – I simply couldn’t focus on the remainder of his presentation because of my anger over this statement. It is wrong on a number of levels:
- It is at odds with being a lifelong learner.
- It reinforces the “sage on the stage” view of the teacher.
- It is not reflective of current research.
Not to mention that it is just plain arrogant. I don’t know Mr. Lehmann personally, however, so I will assume that such arrogance is not typical of his persona and that this was merely a speech device for added effect.
To the first point, this statement presupposes that the pizza delivery man is beneath me and therefore has nothing of value to contribute to me or my education. I am extremely grateful to my father for teaching me that even the garbage man had something valuable for me to learn, and that he reinforced that learning can occur anywhere, even from the most unlikely sources. I like my pizza with lots of meat. I could care less about the veggies. Well, it’s become a running joke now. Out of a desire to eat more healthy, my parents and I hardly ever eat pizza. Whenever we’re here, though, we make it the excuse to eat pizza. So, my parents joke that it’s about time that they visit so that I can eat a meat lover’s pizza. This past summer, when they visited, we had to order delivery rather than eat in, and so we placed an order with a Manchester, NH institution, Caesario’s Pizza. When the delivery man arrived with my pizza, we actually had an impromptu dialogue about the “old country.” It was an informative educational experience that may not have happened if I didn’t believe that learning could occur anywhere.
Second, the statement seems to reinforce the “sage on a stage” view of teaching, that students sit in their chairs and “drink in” the knowledge of the sage before them. I am certain this is not what Mr. Lehmann intended to say: this concept is incongruous with the rest of Mr. Lehmann’s talk, where he took issue with the concept that an education is something that can just be “poured into” the minds of students. However, while there is something special about being a teacher, the profession isn’t sacred, and I think we should be careful about suggesting that teaching is somehow more profound and meaningful than “lesser” professions. When my water heater broke the other day, I needed a plumber, not a teacher. Each profession has meaning in our economy. True, teachers have special skills – and, I would venture, something in their DNA – that makes them good at what they do. But, to establish that difference by denigrating other professions serves no meaningful purpose but to establish one’s own boorish pretentiousness.
Last, Mr. Lehmann’s statement simply isn’t in line with current research. In his article “Most Likely to Succeed” in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell – author of The Tipping Point and Blink – outlines how research at Stanford and the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education shows that the delivery of the material – how it is presented in the classroom and how that presentation engages the students – determines student mastery and therefore teacher efficacy. Knowledge and mastery of the subject does not make one effective. As a high school student, I studied with the first chair trumpet player in the Tulsa Philharmonic. After a number of months had passed and my performance had improved marginally, I switched to taking lessons from the second chair, and the improvement in my performance began a steeper ascent. I then switched to the gentleman who had taught them both, and the improvement was exponential. All three of these men were extremely talented musicians and all three possessed the knowledge which I sought. Only one of them, however, could deliver the material in such a way as to cause exponential growth in my ability as a musician.
We do need to worry about instructional delivery. Connecting with the students – as Mr. Lehmann suggested – certainly is an important piece of education. But equally important is the contemplation of how we deliver that material to the students in a way that excites and engages them. I can recall an instance where I had to teach a series of technology orientation session to different groups of students on a wide variety of unrelated, unconnected topics in an overly warm classroom. I’d rate the first session as decent, but the last session was so much better. My talk had become refined. I had learned to connect the unrelated. More importantly, I had learned how to connect to the student. I had learned how to deliver. Pizza companies have spent a lot of time figuring out that magic bag that keeps your pizza piping warm all the way to your house. Those of us in education should return the favor by continuously working on instructional delivery so that the pizza delivery man’s daughter is getting a better education each time we see her in class.