Showing, Telling, and Teaching

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

Some of my favorite courses in college were creative writing courses. My major, however, wasn’t English, and I had no interest in becoming an author. The reason I kept taking them was because I loved the way they challenged me to view the world differently. The untrained are apt to record their daily experiences as a set of bloodless, abstract judgments: the movie was good; the restaurant was cozy; that customer was a jerk. We tend to communicate with one another in words particular enough to communicate our feelings but rarely vivid enough to make our listeners feel what we felt.

From the start I realized that creative writing was an excellent discipline because it forced me to think through my feelings to their causes. What did I like about the movie? Just what about the restaurant made it “cozy”? How did the customer carry himself, what words did he choose, how did his sarcastic inflection give them a bitter edge? The most essential maxim of every creative writing course is “show, don’t tell.” Go past the impressions and find the concrete sensory details that actually provoked the feeling in the first place.

Teaching can often go the same way. John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching is often considered a pedagogical classic in our circles. I have gone back and forth in terms of my own opinion on its value—at times it has struck me as a mass of tedious tautologies, at other times it has spoken to me in ways that made me want to immediately change how I teach. Most years I reread before or during the first week of school.

This year, something he says struck me much more forcefully than it ever has before. “The chief and almost constant violation of this law of teaching,” Gregory says regarding the fifth law, of the teaching process, “is the attempt to force lessons into pupils’ minds by simply telling. ‘I have told you ten times, and yet you don’t know!’ exclaimed a teacher of this sort. Poor teacher, can you not remember that knowing comes by thinking, not by telling?”

Ouch! Gregory hit me close to home with that one. Too often one of my temptations as a teacher is to do what the unskillful writer does—tell, instead of showing. But just as Gregory says, what we are merely told without thinking through does not stay with us, never becomes truly our own.

A friend may tell me that a restaurant was “cozy” and someone else, if he asks me for my opinion, may receive the same proposition verbally on my friend’s authority. But if he goes on to ask me why this restaurant is cozy, I will be at a loss to give him any real impressions of the place. My knowledge of the restaurant is a kind of verbal rote which is of no real use whatever.

Too often we are content with trying to inculcate the same kind of knowledge in our students. They “know” the Pythagorean theorem, the syntactical uses of the cases of a Latin noun, the date of the battle of Hastings, what Banquo says to Macbeth, a dozen verses of John’s Gospel—in the sense that they can gabble any of them off on command. But such knowledge as this is cheaply held, usually crammed right before the test, and then forgotten with all possible speed.

Now imagine if, on the other hand, I know why the restaurant is cozy—either from firsthand experience, or from the sort of vivid description that makes you feel like you were there. The walls painted in mellow earth tones, the long tables (with benches, not chairs!) made from reclaimed barn wood (massy and knotty), the low, almost candle-like lighting—with sufficient skill and true originality, such a description might stay with you for a long time, and will certainly be of more use to others than the solitary adjective.

Similarly, the best kind of teaching, instead of just telling us things, forces us to think them through,  traveling more or less along the same grooves that the first wheels to take this path made. If good creative writing makes us feel what the author felt, good teaching makes us think what has been thought by the great minds down through history. Ideally, of course, it reproduces the same results much more economically because someone is standing nearby who knows the destination, can guide us away from false steps, and can confirm when we are on the right course.

All this is, of course, very easy to articulate as an ideal, and much harder to put into practice. It requires consummate patience, and great skill in the art of questioning—since the kind of thinking we are after is stimulated much more easily by questions than statements. As long and challenging as the road to master teaching might be, to at least get a clearer idea of what we are aiming at is the essential first step.

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