The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start. Click for a larger view (and to download).

August 12, 2012

Down to One Sentence

Teaching is a complex activity, but it isn't beyond comprehension. I have tried to understand teaching well enough to define it in a single sentence. This isn't just an idle puzzle - I think it's important to be able to describe, succinctly yet completely, what one does. The process of boiling it down forces one to focus on essentials, but the danger is in going too far, distilling past the point of usefulness. The definition needs to be an effective tool, not just an evocative vision.

So what is teaching? Well, the teacher does something, and then the student does something and thereby learns. What kind of something? Let's say that the teacher performs a certain action and the student mimics the action. The teacher watches the student, intervenes when necessary, and repeats the action. The student tries again. The process is repeated until the student is capable on his or her own. Teaching by example is probably the most fundamental and natural form of teaching.

But more is going on than meets the eye. A relationship of trust has been built between the teacher and student so that the interaction can work effectively. The teacher's intervention is extraordinarily important, and will depend exactly on what the student has grasped and what he has missed. The teacher directs the student's attention to the work: like this, not like that, here's why, can you see? Mere mimicry is not enough, the student must develop some understanding. The teacher will not always be there, the student must learn to correct himself, must learn how to learn.

In the modern classroom, teachers work with groups of students, sometimes large groups. Directing the attention of a group is an act of performance. For good or ill, the students reinforce each other. Trust is built between teacher and group, usually one student at a time. Each student brings his or her challenges, and instruction must be tailored accordingly.

The instruction is carefully designed so that if the student attends to the instruction, he will learn something. The student may need to have his attention corralled and directed. The teacher may employ a number of behavioral techniques to do this. So we approach a single sentence: Using behavioral techniques, a teacher directs a student's attention to instructional activities designed to help the student learn. Now I have a tool that can help me understand and improve my own work and help others see what it is that I am doing.

Of course, teaching does not happen just in classrooms. It happens all the time, as does learning. Deliberate teaching in any environment can be broadly defined in a similar, more comprehensive, sentence. Teaching is a kind of performance in which the attention of the student is exploited to induce an experience that will change the way the student thinks.

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