Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: learning

Filling the Void

The key is to scaffold struggle, not to fill the void.

“Filling the void” is a term I use a lot with teachers. Filling the void is what we do when we perceive that something that needs to be done – often by somebody else – is not being done. We sense the void, and we feel anxious. So we jump right in and kill two birds with one stone: We do the job (thus demonstrating our competence) and we tamp down our anxiety.

And make way for resentment. But I’m sprinting way ahead.

Here’s how filling the void might sound:

Student: I don’t know how to do this.

Teacher: Sure you do! We just went over it.

Student: But I don’t get it. I do this…and then…this?

Teacher: I’ll show you.

Where is the void? (Actually, I perceive two possible voids here.)

Void #1: The student doesn’t know something.

Void #2: The student can’t do something.

These are very common voids, of course. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either of them on the face of it. In fact, one might consider not knowing something and not being able to do something as valid steps along the path to mastery.

How does this teacher fill the voids?

Tactic #1: Deny the void’s existence

The teacher fills the void by insisting it’s not there. “No, you don’t not know. You do know.” This is not a great tactic because it totally overrides the student’s own reality. And students really need to have their own realities validated.

Tactic #2: Do it yourself

Showing students how to do things is a perfectly legitimate way to teach. Watch out, though: If you’re doing something to fill a void, you may be helping yourself more than the student.

The reason I say this is that, if voids make you anxious – because somewhere way back in your history you learned that competence is better than incompetence or merging is better than separation or (perhaps more recently) your student’s performance is a marker of your own value — then filling the void might be a knee-jerk reaction to your anxiety.

It may be that what your student needs more than anything is to feel that void himself. Feeling the void, especially with a teacher who is comfortable with void-induced anxiety, might spur your student to actually start struggling.

Which is what students need to become comfortable with. Struggling. While being “held” (more about this another time) by a curious and confident teacher.

In short, when students don’t know something or can’t do something, they might be exactly where they need to be: poised on the edge of struggle. Allowing students to struggle their way from not-knowing to knowing, from incompetence to competence, is not only ultimately gratifying (for student and teacher) but is, in fact, an acceptable definition of teaching-and-learning.

What voids do you fill?


group-hugOne assumption that is too often missing from educational policy and practice is that learning and growing depend on relationships with people.

I was just perusing the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, and my attention lighted on three different — but, it turns out, related — articles:

* one on high school AP courses vs. new college courses that are beginning to emphasize what AP courses do not, namely, cross-disciplinary thinking;

* one on dual-credit courses in which high school students tap in to college courses (usually by watching videos of professors teaching) and get credit in both institutions; and

* one on competence-based learning, where credit is given to life experience.

This brief journey got me thinking about the myriad (or perhaps much too convergent) set of assumptions that seem to underlie education these days. Some of these assumptions seem to be that

* successful learning can be replicated on a standardized test

* successful learning can be done via video

* successful learning is evidenced exclusively by behavioral outcomes

My purpose here is not to disagree with these assumptions. Rather, it is to remark on what is for me a distressing absence: the absence of any sense of learning as fundamentally relational.

Actually, the assumptions I’ve listed above are relational in that they imply that successful learning depends on forging some sort of relationship with content, either through focused practice in an AP course or exposure to lecturing professors or actual experience in the field. And I agree that learning pretty much by definition must include a relationship with content.

But I also think learning is more than just content- or cognition-based. I’ve come to think of learning as synonymous with development, with emotional and cognitive and social and identity development. And my understanding of these types of development points to the undeniable fact that they happen through human relationships.

For me, teachers are developmental partners to students. They play incredibly valuable and difficult roles in students’ lives — as ideals, as mentors, as mirrors, as opponents, as attachment figures, as test objects. Teachers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are structures within which students grow (or not) regardless of the subject matter. While few teachers consciously embrace these roles or know how to use them to their own and their students’ advantage, the roles, the relationships, are nonetheless at the heart of learning.

(Shameless Plug here: My book, The Feeling of Teaching, shows how teachers can use these roles and others to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.)

I just wonder what conversations about MOOCs or flipped classrooms or standardized testing or scripted curricula would sound like if this assumption — that learning means emotional and relational development — were included. After all, we don’t just want competent historians or architects or cabinet-makers or computer programmers to emerge from our schools. We want — at least, I want — mature, healthy, competent people to emerge.

What assumptions drive your teaching?