The Ten Commandments

9/06/2009 10:12:00 am

From the archives ... I started writing this post in November of 2007.
A while back, Dean and Bud got me thinking. Bud's tweet contains more than a kernel of truth.

Shortly after reading Bud and Dean I was listening to David Suzuki on the radio. He mentioned in passing the idea of "in depth news reports" on television. Generally, that means they're going to talk about an issue for about two minutes. Some issues need to be explored in more depth than that. I think pedagogy is one of those issues. In particular, I think I need to explore my own teaching, articulate my own pedagogical practices, open them up to scrutiny and shore up the weak bits.

George Polya's ideas have been very influential on me and my evolution as an educator. Since reading his Ten Commandments For Teachers I have tried to model them in my practice. Although Polya (1887-1985) is no longer alive, I consider myself one of his students. This series of blog posts is my record of what I'm learning about the craft of teaching.

In chapter 14 of Polya's book, Mathematical Discovery, he talks about the teacher's attitude and structures his thinking around what he calls The Ten Commandments For Teachers. This is the first in a series of posts digging into this in depth; maybe four, maybe ten; one for each commandment. We'll see.
Although I've been thinking about it for a long time, I've got more questions than answers about these commandments. I want to share my thinking and questions here because:
(1) I want to capture my where my thinking is at today so I can come back and reconsider it in the future.
(2) I'm hoping people wiser than I might share some of their insights. I'm hoping the give and take inherent in blogging about it might push my thinking and practice; make me a better teacher.
So push back at any weak bits below or share your own teaching tip.

In chapter 14 of Mathematical Discovery Polya lists his Ten Commandments For Teachers. They have been a guiding light for me as a teacher since I first read them.
1. Be interested in your subject.
2. Know your subject.
3. Know about the ways of learning: The best way to learn anything is to discover it by yourself.
4. Try to read the faces of your students, try to see their expectations and difficulties, put yourself in their place.
5. Give them not only information, but "know-how," attitudes of mind, the habit of methodical work.
6. Let them learn guessing.
7. Let them learn proving.
8. Look out for such features of the problem at hand as may be useful in solving the problems to come — try to disclose the general pattern that lies behind the present concrete situation.
9. Do not give away your whole secret at once — let the students guess before you tell it — let them find out by themselves as much as is feasible.
10. Suggest it, do not force it down their throats.

MODELING PASSION: Be Interested In Your Subject
Polya identifies the single most powerful and infallible teaching method: "If the teacher is bored by what he is teaching it is a certainty that all his students will be too." I believe the inverse is also true: If a teacher is interested in what they are teaching their students will be too. Actually, "interest" by itself may not be enough; passion is a virus. There is a contagion in passion that can be passed on. I would rewrite Polya's first commandment as: "Be passionate about your subject." If you can't do that then I guess interest will have to do but if you don't have even that, do something else.
If you were a student in grade 8, and your teacher began a new unit of study like this what do you think your engagement with the material might be? Passion Based Learning is powerful stuff. There's something magnetic about a teacher who is passionate about what they are teaching. Passion leads to Interest leads to Life Long Learning. Kids need to see that their teachers are interested with their subject and constantly trying to get better at what they do. If we don't model the drive for excellence in what we teach why should they be interested in doing excellent work in our classes?

The teacher's most powerful pedagogical tool in their toolbox is tucked away in their attitude, demeanor and engagement with what they are teaching; we call it modeling. It's such a fundamental idea. Surprisingly, some quick searching on the net reveals very little written about the importance of modeling in education as a general pedagogical practice. Even wikipedia has very little to say about it; the closest article to this idea is called Modelling (psychology). It seems to me we need a few good educators to flesh this article out a bit on wikipedia.
A while back Dean asked, Can A Fat Man Teach Phys. Ed.? His answer: "Yes, but ..." It all comes back to the importance of modeling.

I'm reminded of Benjamin Zander who says:
Our job is to awaken possibility in others ... You know you're doing it when their eyes are shining. And if their eyes are not shinning, then we have to ask ourselves, "Who am I being that my [students] eyes are not shinning?"

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  1. Some issues need to be explored in more depth than that. I think pedagogy is one of those issues. In particular, I think I need to explore my own teaching, articulate my own pedagogical practices, open them up to scrutiny and shore up the weak bits.

    I fully agree with it. But where is the community for that kind of discussion? So far, I find blogposts here and there where some teachers will discuss their lessons. Occasionally I will comment with suggestions and ideas but hardly a process that can be relied upon to improve pedagogy in a systematic or ongoing fashion.

    For example, after I read a recent post by a Sam Shah about visually representing quadratics to see how many are factorable over integers, I started thinking about some ways to drive that point to students. I described about 4 different ways that it could be done and even created a tool to visualize quadratics factorization, but unless someone comments or e-mails me, I'm basically in the dark.

    As far as having passion for the subject, if the few blogs I follow are any indication, the outlook is positive.

    A friend of mine who was working towards a math credential once told me that her elementary school teacher started every Wednesday with "It's Wednesday, math day, boring day.." She is surprised that she survived that and was eventually a math major.

  2. I had never seen the ten commandments before visiting this blog but I must say that they are interesting and pretty true. I agree we as teachers should reflect more about our styles and try to improve them.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I know my own learning successes have had much to do with the passion that my teachers have possessed for the topic or the skills being taught. Sometimes, though, I encounter teachers whose own passion for their subject area inhibits the learning of the kids inside their classrooms. For example--just last week, during a pretty intense debate around providing student choice as readers, a teacher that I respect very much insisted that his students should have to read the books that he has selected for his classroom regardless of whether or not they are interested (or even capable) of reading them. When I asked how he would engage these kids and inspire true learning he insisted that his passion for the topic and the text was enough. Passion-based learning conversations get sticky for me here. I tend to think that it has more to do with helping kids define and grow their passions and making space for this within our classrooms. Modeling this is so important....but I find that distinguishing between our passions as teachers and their passions as students is important too. Would love your thoughts on how you would respond to this. I confront perspectives like these often in my own work....

  4. I really enjoyed reading the Ten Commandments for teaching. I definitely agree with you about needing to have passion. I teach elementary school, and I am in my second year of teaching. One of the things that I found last year was that my students were not as enthusiastic about learning during certain subjects. After reflecting on my own passions, I realized that I did not put the same amount of emphasis and excitement into those lessons as I did the subjects I most enjoyed.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed the 10 commandments - thought provoking. Leads me to reflect on my classes this past week and how to better prepare and present material.

    Also loved the passion idea. We are most inspired by individuals who are passionate about their subject area. When we live what we love then we embody true learning and can grow toward mastery.

    Looking forward to more posts on this theme.

  6. Speaking about the passion of a teacher alone in his/her subject led me thinking a lot. If a teacher is passionate about his subject beyond love, shouldn't he be pursuing a doctorate in that subject instead of trying to convince little 7-12 year olds about the importance of (e.g.) history all his life?

    On the other hand, it is a sad reality that many primary school teachers in my country take up that job because there is public demand and they need a stable job that few want (not true in this economic downturn, but generally so). Some of them disliked certain subjects, but owing to necessity, are compelled to teach 3 different subjects (English, Math, Science). With 3 subjects to teach, there will surely be teachers who still dislike one or the other, and are not able to radiate enough passion for any subject.

  7. I think that the most brilliant thought of this entire blog is the place where it says something to the effect of, if a teacher is bored with their lesson then for sure their students are not interested!. Something that I have heard as I earn my degree is that if I ever get bored of what I am teaching I need to change what I do in the classroom or change careers. If teachers are not interested in what they are teaching then there is no way we as educators can expect our students to care. The most impacting teachers I have had in my career are those that even though the subject may not have been my favorite, they for sure were passionate about it!

  8. A passionate teacher inspires passionate students and passionate students excel. The teachers I learned the most from were those teachers passionate about their subject and what they were teaching because it always made me more interested in the subject.

  9. I look forward to reading your future posts about Polya's 10 commandments of teaching. I can justify that students can sense a teacher's interest in a subject by their demeanor, as I've experienced this as a student myself and it can have a profound effect on how the student approaches the subject themselves.

  10. An interesting article. Reflection and review should certainly be a consequent aspect of any teacher’s desire to improve their teaching methodology. What’s fascinating about the “ten commandments” principle is how it is designed to foster an external perspective on how students’ learning inclinations can improve versus a solely introspective look into how the teacher teaches. In my estimation, one of the most important of the provisions provided was the first, which simply advocates for an educator to be interested in their subject matter. A disinterested teacher will almost always spawn an atmosphere of apathy among students in the classroom.