Learning No. 4: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

My fourth powerful learning moment of 2010 was inspired by my KIETT trainees, my colleague and friend Kevin Giddens, and this Buddhist saying:

Don’t just do something, stand there.

I first read this quote in the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg. It was in the chapter titled Receiving Emapthically. The image I got from this quote went something like this:

Imagine there is a man and a woman. The woman is feeling sad, and needs to talk it out. The man listens to her; he just listens, standing there. He gives no advice. The woman feels his listening, and is able to go deeper within herself. She feels her emotions and connects to her needs. In the end she feels relief, and has found her own solution. She has gained more than if the man had “done something.”

Something similar applies to teaching. For me the idea is that by supporting students, by creating the right learning environment, the teacher doesn’t really need to do anything in class. The teacher just needs to be there and listen. This is what Kevin writes about in his blog Do-Nothing Teaching (DNT), and by the end of this entry my goal is to have convinced you to take part in his DNT challenge.

I noticed the power of doing nothing a few times during the last semester. This especially resonated for me during my lesson on how to scaffold learning. In order to present this concept, I said nothing about it.

How did I present it then? I planned a lesson on acrostic poetry. Since my trainees had just switched classes, and were with a new group of not-so-familiar faces, I thought this would be a fun “getting to know you” activity to start the new session.

To start, I gave a handout with three different acrostic poems. I asked them what they noticed about how each poem was written (see inductive learning). After eliciting and writing their answers on the board, I asked each trainee to write their name on a slip of paper. They then put it in a bag, and chose the name of one of their classmates. Guess what they had to do next?

Well before they could write a poem about that person, they had to get to know each other a little better. To do this, I gave them a list of idiomatic expressions that connected to character traits. For example, heart of gold, knows the tricks of the trade and pulls out all the stops. With the list, they had to interview their partners to find out how they related personally to the idioms. After about 15 minutes (I just sat and listened), they started writing their acrostic poem.

When they were done, and had written the final draft on a colorful piece of paper, they posted their poems on the classroom walls. During the gallery walk we heard laughter and happy sighs, and saw smiles and blushing cheeks. This was the beginning of a positive classroom atmosphere.

Poster walk

Poster Walk

After the gallery walk we took some time to talk about how they felt reading the poems. There was a lot of joy and amusement. We also talked about what they learned. They mentioned they learned new idioms, the format of an acrostic poem, and a bit more about their classmates. The class ended like this.

The next day I asked them to remember the sequence of events for the acrostic poetry lesson. After I wrote the sequence on the board, I asked them what they noticed about how I had planned the lesson. Someone finally said that I had planned the activities step-by-step. This is when I introduced the term “scaffolding”. All I told them was that scaffolding was essentially a teaching theory whereby the teacher supports her students by introducing the material step-by-step. This is all I said. I didn’t give any lecture.

Instead I gave them a handout that explained the different elements of scaffolding, and they got into groups. With their scaffolded experience (acrostic poems) and the handout, they discussed their understanding of scaffolding. To display their understanding, I asked them to create a poster. The poster could be as creative as they wanted, but it had to explain the concept of scaffolding. Here were the results (also see the header image to this blog):

Scaffolding Poster

What did I do during this time? I didn’t do too much. I sat at my desk, I monitored the groups, I listened, and sometimes I answered questions. What did they do? They discussed the concept, developed an understanding of scaffolding for themselves, and then presented this understanding to the other members. In the end, they taught themselves.

Of course I had a plan, and with my vision I guided them to where I wanted them to go. If I had noticed they were struggling or had no idea about scaffolding, I would have helped. After all, I was teaching about scaffolding. However, if I create the right environment, and I give enough support, I don’t need to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. At this point I trust that my trainees will go where they need to go. I believe that in the end, if I butt out, their learning will be deeper. This is how I view do-nothing teaching, and this is how I “just don’t do something” and sit there.

If you have examples of how you just stand there and do nothing during your lessons, why not join the DNT challenge? Go to Kevin’s site (click here) and follow the instructions. Your concept of Do-Nothing Teaching may be different than mine or his, and that’s fine. That’s the idea.



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4 thoughts on “Learning No. 4: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

  1. What an interesting example of allowing your students the space to learn. The posters turned out amazing – and with so little explanation. That combination of having the space to be creative while knowing that you the teacher are there as support seems to be a formula for rich learning. I appreciate how you’ve highlighted the importance of scaffolding in Do-Nothing Teaching. In my vision we as a community of teachers and learners would slowly piece together the theory of DNT and it seems that with this post that vision is beginning to come to fruition. I like how you highlighted your awareness of what was going on in the classroom while the students were working independently. Your awareness of the students seemed to be the key that allowed you to feel comfortable “sitting there.” As you pointed out had they needed help you would have provided it. Your concept of Do-Nothing Teaching seems to imply that scaffolding must be coupled with an acute awareness of what’s going on among the learners in your classroom.

    1. Yes support seems to have a big part in my concept of “doing-nothing”. I think that support comes with knowing when to let go.

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