Teaching and the Art of Tidying

By Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

Marie Kondo, best selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up says, “The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.” Teachers need to know how to teach effectively. Figuring out what to keep in our teaching, and what we can “get rid of” requires a good dose of self-knowledge, lots of reliable data, and a dash of humility.

The KonMari program, which I am using to tidy up my house, office, and teaching, asks you to consider only one question as you decide what to keep and what to get rid of: “Does this spark joy?”

When I got to all my papers, notebooks, and countless books on education while tidying, I almost panicked. All these authors who knew so much more than I did! All the notes from graduate school, online courses, seminars, courses I had taught, and conferences! Could I really get rid of them? As I looked at each one and tried to remember what I had learned, and if it still “sparked joy” I found I could, and they did.

While I put everything I had chosen to get rid of into plastic bags I felt something I had not expected to feel – an almost giddy sense of relief. I also realized that the guilt was gone, as was the thought, “But I need to know that.” It occurred to me that after all my years of searching for the magic formula to great teaching, it wasn’t in my notes, or even my books. It was in me; in what I had internalized from all the data and actual teaching. As I got rid of what I didn’t need, I had more space, mentally and physically. Space to see what I really valued (the things I had kept), as well as space to see what I still needed to learn.

We teach who we are.

Our biases, education, and life experiences inform how, as well as what, we teach. As a college professor I taught dance, history, composition and theatre movement. I also taught writing and study skills. I taught things I loved. My passion for these subjects shone through all the techniques I slowly acquired, techniques I knew I needed in order to share what I loved with my students. But the techniques and methods were an appendage, not the thing itself. My love for my students, and my love for what I was sharing, were the root of my work.

As columnist and former professor David Brooks puts it in his extraordinary article Students Learn from People They Love, “What teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students.” He goes on to define love as, “Willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”

We learn from others, but we choose which others

Two experts in the field of education who have used their talents and drive in “willing the good of another,” and from whom I have learned, are Jay McTighe and Dr. Eric Mazur. Although their approaches differ, their basic philosophies are complimentary. They both care deeply about whether or not students understand and can transfer the material they are being taught rather than just parroting their teachers. They see possibilities everywhere and use them to improve teaching effectiveness, whether from athletic coaches (McTighe), or from classroom dysfunction that turned into Peer Instruction (PI) (Mazur).

They also both love data. Data that separates impressions and personal biases from real outcomes. Data that drives choices, and that is used in the pursuit of effective methods of instruction, rather than the newest fads.

Both these educators have been examples in their separate fields, of how we can all do better at reaching our students. Dr. Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, is well known for his thoughts on lecturing in Higher Ed. I will always remember the first time I heard his thoughts in an online interview. I couldn’t believe someone was saying what we all knew: Lecturing doesn’t really work, even though it is how most if us were taught . . . But, was it how we learned?

Another realization came while attending my first Understand by Design (UbD) seminar. Out of the large group of educators at the conference I was the only college professor. When McTighe asked all of us to think of an example of someone who taught us something, something that really stuck, and to share it with our table-mates we all had a story, and none of them involved college professors! The others spoke of parents, or coaches, or elementary school teachers. I shared a story about a ballet teacher who had changed how I saw dance, teaching, and myself. It motivated me to find out how the gap between expertise and teaching could be spanned. My answer was UbD.

Recognizing and controlling my bias

Both Mazur and McTighe recognize that teacher bias is a big part of the teaching problem. For Mazur even the question of bias e.g., teaching a certain way because it is how we were taught, hinges on data. He says, “We all have our own bias. Anything that deviates from your bias you will treat with skepticism. What helps overcome those biases is hard evidence that something works better than what you did in the past.”

We all know hard evidence in teaching can be difficult to come by. Is it in student test scores? Evaluations? Peer review? The fact that there is no clear definition of teaching excellence points to two possibilities: That teaching is an art, and fairly subjective, or that we have avoided the complicated task of assessing teachers in the same way we assess students – through results.

Both Mazur and McTighe agree that the question of accountability and how teachers are evaluated in Higher Ed is broken. Mazur says, “The accountability we have in education is next to zero. Essentially the teachers are the ones evaluating their own teaching, especially in Higher Ed.” And McTighe says simply that teaching in Higher Ed is, “the last bastion of non accountability.”

If personal bias blinds us, teacher observations can enlighten us

McTighe and another educator I interviewed, Jacqueline Lynch, Dean of Adult Ed at Triton College, suggests having faculty (not administrators) do teacher observations. Lynch has seasoned teachers take on mentoring roles and provide supportive feedback to young professors. This enables the new teacher to receive support based on real life observation of their teaching and mentoring rather than just receiving poor evaluations on a skill they were never taught.

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment

Another important best practice in the classroom is the environment that is created. From peer instruction to peer review encouraging a space where students feel both supported and challenged is critical to the goal of learning, and difficult to achieve. Some ideas from our experts include UbD’s practical suggestion to do “backwards design.” McTighe also has provided teachers with a framework for creating clear lesson plans and syllabi which center on a Big Idea and Essential Questions, as well as using formative assessment and transparent grading practices. Much of the difficult work of engaging students with their classes is covered in Dr. Mazur’s now iconic process called Peer Instruction, where students spend class time discussing what they learned in their homework. In effect, Mazur has “flipped” the college classroom. His follow-up work on how best to deliver material outside of class has resulted in the creation of Perusall.com.

We value what we love, and we should love seeing our students succeed. McTighe said, “It is a college teacher’s job to be mindful of their student’s mindsets.” He, like Mazur and Lynch, believes that data can drive learning if it’s the right kind. He explained that formative assessment allows the teacher to, “give everyone data so we all know what to work on. We should also allow for the student to make use of feedback e.g., allowing for essays to be revised based on exchanges within a peer response group with a rubric ,and time to revise.” He likened not doing this to, “eating without digesting.”

The fact that students often feel overwhelmed reminded me of when I was trying to incorporate UbD into my syllabi. I was “eating without digesting” and it made me feel overwhelmed, stupid, and incredibly frustrated. When I told McTighe about my concerns he said, “Just pick one thing to do from the UbD framework.” (I think his catch phrase was, “Start small and go for an early win.”) I chose UbD’s focus on developing Essential Questions, and it worked. My students absorbed the course material more organically and thoroughly, and I lived to fight another day. Choosing one thing to focus on gave me space and time to really digest that one concept, and led me to the others when I was ready to move on. It’s easy for educators to suffer from what Harvard’s Steven Pinker calls, “the curse of knowledge.” In short, the inability to remember what it felt like before we knew what we have known for so long. For instance, when I first wrote, “the curse of knowledge,” I felt it was okay to leave it at that: To assume knowledge.

Many teachers are like that, but we shouldn’t be. It’s why empathy and humility play an important role in great teaching. Yes, we need to really know our base profession, but we also need to know the basics of how to communicate it to the people sitting in our classrooms. The people who are counting on us to help them make meaning out of what we know; not just give them information they could just as easily find on their phones.

We learn from our students

I asked one of mine, Madeline Demaree, what she thought about the teaching she had received in college. She pointed out that many of her professors didn’t, “carry out the basic tenets of good teaching.” As an education major she went on to explain that they didn’t:

  1. Give students clear directions,
  2. Give them homework that was relevant to what they were learning in class, and
  3. Let them know how they would be assessed.

When I read that I realized she was talking to me. She was talking to all of us. I also remembered what a colleague of mine, Gail Russell-Chaddock, had told me that as she looked back on her teaching career, the more she sees what she did wrong and wishes she’s been “plugged into these ideas.” The ideas being how to reach students, rather than just preach at them.

I rarely quote ancient Chinese proverbs but this one seems peculiarly appropriate: “Do not confine your teaching to your own learning for your children [students] were born in another time.”

Finding what works for us and our particular students is no easy task. But it is worth the effort. And, as we practice, we will find that we can more easily assess what our students need, and use the data to be sure. That will spark joy for us, and them.


Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen is the Founder of Bear Pond Learning, a nonprofit in Bridgton, ME.

Read Hilary’s previous blog post Teaching Expertise Worth Striving For.