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Three Puzzles of Pedagogy

As part of HGSE's Teaching and Learning Week, Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt offers a personal reflection on one of his former teachers

October 10, 2014
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Mrs. Eberhart was precise in her instructions and unrelenting in her enforcement.  If your three-ring notebook didn’t have five tabbed sections for literature, math, science, health, and social studies, your 5th grade career was in trouble.  She told you how to array the questions, responses, and evidence in parallel columns, and marked off if your ink was blue instead of blue-black.

But all of us in Mrs. Eberhart’s class learned how to give morning talks from index card notes, put decimal points in the right place, and get our work, properly inked, in on time.

For most of my career I was a documentary maker and television producer, so I’ve come late to teaching.  Every year I feel ever-greater respect for colleagues who bring so much skill, passion, flair and thoughtfulness to their classes on Appian Way … and each year I feel even more intrigued by the mysteries of effective teaching.

The puzzle of Mrs. Eberhart is that she was a powerful, positive influence — even though I would never instruct students in the detailed, prescriptive way she did.  In other words, how is it that teaching styles that I might consider fundamentally misguided — from elementary school micromanagement to perfectly polished hour-long college lectures — can work so well?

A second mystery is the paradox of preparation. I can’t go into a class session without a detailed map of the points I want to convey, plans for discussions and other activities I hope students will find engaging, and an explicit list of the ideas I want students to leave thinking about.  But the real value of pre-visualizing how a class will work turns out to be freedom: the chance to be more spontaneous, to take advantage of connections and enthusiasms that emerge as the period unfolds. I’d really like to achieve the kind of “in the moment” teaching that I admire in colleagues, but I won’t let go of thorough preparation as a security blanket for evolving in that direction.

Finally, teaching seems to be a very peculiar game: not zero-sum, but inflationary. The more I share design and responsibility with students, the stronger and more engaging the learning experience for them — but at the same time, the richer the learning experience for me. Learning seems to be an ideal good, like the magic cake in a fairy tale, where everyone’s slice gets bigger the more we share it.

My sense is that these are not puzzles to solve, but to think with. Teaching and Learning Week is a welcome reminder that HGSE is an especially supportive place for doing that.

About the Author

Joseph Blatt
Joseph Blatt is a Senior Lecturer on Education and Faculty Director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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