Sometimes inspiration comes from unusual places. This week it came through the mail. I don’t always take the time to read through my alumni magazine but when I do I’m never disappointed. This edition contains a particularly great quote from David Anderegg, a professor at my alma mater, Bennington College. I think every educator should read it
“I give assignments to make sure that students are integrating on a deep level. It’s easy to learn concepts superficially, to get familiar with the terminology and to speak in terminology. When I assign something to the class, I’m looking to see if students are able to grasp a concept, if they understand its range and limits, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, and if they are able to apply the concept.
I think of class participation and assignments in tandem. It’s all part of the same thing, and I require both. Sometimes my students want to know why participation is required and that’s when I talk about Andrea Bocelli.
I like to sing. My wife gave me a CD of Andrea Bocelli singing operas. I’m riding up here [Bennington College is in the Green Mountains] and I listen to it in the morning and I sing along with him. When I’m singing along with him, I say to myself, I sound pretty good. I sing as well as Andrea Bocelli. I’m good at this. Then I turn off the CD and I sing without Andrea Bocelli, and that’s when I know I do not sing as well as Andrea Bocelli. There’s a big difference.
I tell them that story because it’s very much like class participation. There sitting in class and may be nodding along and think they know exactly what I’m talking about. Then they will ask a question or speak up - and in doing that they’re trying to clarify something for themselves and they usually begin to realize in that moment that they don’t know the material as well as they thought they did. Sometimes people think this is all for the professor, but participation and assignments are not for me; they’re for the student. It is in these exercises of interpreting and applying concepts in class or in assignment that they’re able to see and I’m able to see where there is traction and where there are gaps in understanding.”
I love this analogy. We’ve all had that experience of singing along to our favourite artist, feeling very sure that we sound just like, in my case, Adele. And then we try to sing those songs by ourselves and realize that, in fact, no… we will not be collecting a Grammy any time soon!
I also love the way Anderegg frames the design of his assignments as tasks that are intended to point out those gaps in understanding, to make them explicit, and to help students to fill them in. I wonder how that perspective can inform how we present materials to younger students and how we frame the process of a developing inquiry in our classes. I’ve always thought about how materials and provocations move the learning forward but now I’m thinking about how I could effectively design those experiences and environments to intentionally probe and explore areas of misunderstanding and confusion, to be more deliberate about it and more effective in my instruction as a result. It really opens up a whole new world of possibilities!
Now, where’s that Adele CD?