Ruth’s Truths – Ruth Morris

Dancing feetLearning a Lesson —

During my undergraduate days at UCLA, then as now, hundreds of students listened to their professors in large lecture halls. I don’t recall anyone trying to stop a professor mid-lecture to ask for clarification on a point. Professors offered “office hours” for questions, clarification or extra assistance. A recent kerfuffle at a dance session I attended caused me to reflect on my own education, and how that background, and my years in the corporate world, may have informed my own teaching and learning styles.

The brouhaha at the dance happened when the choreographer teaching our lesson told his off-task, side-conversation-having, noisy students to…”shut up.” Some students whined about his rudeness. His style, which is entirely typical of the way a folk dance is taught, consisted of a walk-through explanation of a folk dance sequence without music. The next step was, and is often, steps dictated orally with the music in the background. Finally, the dance is practiced with music, but without the talk. When particular moves in the sequences are difficult, the teachers often ask the students to repeat the move two or three times.

When the students weren’t readily digesting the particular dance move they were being served, they began to question the teacher/choreographer. He became flustered and frustrated – the ability to choreograph dances to music does not necessarily mean a person can teach also – and some felt offended by his manner. Later, one dancer stated, “dancers adhere to a social contract where a teacher is only expected to present the material to large groups as an introduction.” I agreed with this, and relate it to all classroom-type learning. In dancing, and maybe in “real-life” as well, you acquire knowledge from input, mimicry and repetition. When it comes to dancing, you may eventually master the more difficult aspects of dances by following other proficient dancers, or by viewing videos of lessons on YouTube. The commenting dancer maintained that asking questions in the middle of the lesson was like asking for a private lesson on the spot, and that it both interrupted the teacher, and impeded the progress of the accelerated students who were able to acquire the material as it was being presented.

When I have taught or trained people, my style has always been more “presentation” than “teaching” oriented, which is also the way I like to learn. My K-12 classes were taught with my brand of classroom management, which consisted of: inviting students into my classroom all at once, having them quietly sit down and take out their materials, and then requiring them to complete a five to ten minute, graded, for credit, written reflection. This segue allowed me to present my material, and I’d ask my audience (of students) to reserve questions until after I was done. I suggested that my listeners take notes, so that their questions would not be forgotten; when a person’s mind is cluttered with questions, they’re not able to listen. Furthermore, when a speaker is interrupted, they might forget their train of thought. Some of my students felt that I “wouldn’t allow them to ask questions,” but I always did leave opportunity for query, just at appropriate junctures.

I agreed with my fellow dancer’s assessment of the situation. From teaching dance routines to writing process workshops, lessons and/or presentations to large groups of people can only be meant as introductory efforts. The minute you gather together thirty random individuals to learn anything, a handful of people will already have some prior knowledge, or, with minimal instruction they’ll understand concepts quickly. Within the same group, a couple of students may never actually master the material. The majority of students will eventually “master” the skill, but at varying levels of depth and speed.

The good news is that most skills under the sun can be acquired through practice, repetition, and occasional intervention. To the extent that a teacher can communicate expectations clearly to students at the very start, they will be able to decipher quickly which concepts are or are not understood by what population of students. Teachers can then easily zero-in with topic specific groupings, such as: writing conclusions on essays, solving proofs in Geometry or memorizing the meanings of historical terms. If done properly, temporary sub-groups can be formed around remediation, someone capable of re-teaching a concept in a different manner can be found to do the job, and everyone else can move on to new and/or more in depth knowledge acquisition.

Many educator friends claim that they are being asked to teach so that students can achieve “mastery.” This sounds like a case of perfectionism, which is a hindrance – not a help – to learning. The notion that everyone should be able to learn every concept that is taught “perfectly” is subjective; what IS mastery after all? Is it 100%? 85%? Is 75% ever enough? If we instead start by introducing topics and giving diagnostic assessments (checking for prior knowledge) up front, students who immediately demonstrate mastery should be able to choose new or more in depth topics to learn about, and share their extra time and brainpower for the greater good of society.

If I cannot run a mile in ten minutes, making me run that mile over and over until I improve is punitive. It could be that there is physical problem preventing me (a little asthma), an emotional problem (lack of desire to bother with such a task), or maybe I need to learn some special trick in order to do it. This particular example demonstrates that standards are made to be questioned, just as rules are made to be broken. What authority decides who should be able to run a mile in a set amount of time, and to what end?

Imparting and acquiring knowledge becomes painful when we turn it into “rocket science.” I believe in a more organic approach to learning. I call it “figuring stuff out.”

Artwork by Alix Travis


  1. I enjoyed this article and can appreciate the perspective of both teacher and student.

    I went back to school in my 40’s – as a working professional and parent – to widen my knowledge base and get a formal degree. Most of the other students were half my age. I loved my great teachers and “stuck it out” with the others because I had a goal. When adults choose to be in a learning environment they are aware of the value of their time and don’t want it wasted.

    I have been a professional musician (player, arranger, orchestrator), for decades and have always had a ridiculously high standard for myself. For many of these years I have also taught music privately and in (small) class situations. I have been very fortunate in that my students choose to be there (vs. a school teacher who has to manage a large class of students all over the map in every way … oh, how I admire them!). While I have always been highly motivated – an overachiever of sorts – I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of my adult students are looking for enrichment (not perfection) and need inspiration, information, guidance, and encouragement.

    One thing is clear to me: there must be a mutual respect between teachers and their students. Every teacher has to figure out what classroom management style works for them and communicate their expectations clearly. However, as a student it’s very frustrating and discouraging to feel like you can’t ask a question – thereby feeling like the train is leaving you behind – so if a teacher isn’t open to answering questions mid-lesson they should be prepared to lose a few students along the way.

  2. Thank you so much for your comments, and apfor reading my column!

    The “question” question has always been a debateable subject. It is not that questions cannot or should not be asked at all. It is just a matter of managing the questions themselves. In my years of teaching classes with mixed levels of students, you could usually tell who the gifted students were right away; they’d be the students with their hands up during your lecture. The reason why is because the academically gifted get concepts so rapidly that they can already see what a teacher or presenter is about to say before they say it. They want, even need, to acquire knowledge on the “fast-forward” button, and are inclined to bring up a question so early, that the answering of it would, in fact, lose not one or two students, but more likely most of the class.

    This is why I feel that students already at mastery should not be forced to sit through presentations that are intended to reach the majority of students; they need as much – perhaps more – attention that students who end up not understanding the material at all. A person who does not understand, does not know what they do not know; they do not even know enough to ask a question. Questions are more often asked by people who DO understand most of what is being presented already. Just as it is sinful to make students who are ready to move on stay on the same topic too long, it is also sinful to confuse and/or bore the majority with questions that take a brief presentation off track.

    Although I don’t mean to stray from the topic of “questions,” this article was meant to be a “part one” before I get back to my favorite subject: how do we handle the reality that a considerably large percentage of students come into a classroom already having mastered a subject. Most educators do not know how to answer this question!

    It is easy to think we are “doing the job” by creating as many remediation opportunities as possible and allowing people to “ask as many questions as they’d like ” – whenever they choose to raise a hand. We think that is the best customer service a teacher can provide. The other knee-jerk reaction is to have students who have mastered concepts use their extra time to help others understand those same concepts. But this is a disservice to the students who “get it.” We must learn not hold back our best and brightest minds from being allowed to make creative choices and pursue their own learning. More on this in another article.

    Thank you again, Ms. Kinnon!

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