“It ain’t the six minutes, it’s what happens in the six minutes.”
This quote from the 1985 wrestling-themed movie, Visionquest, has stuck with me ever since high school. It does have some pretty raw sailorish language within, so I chose not to embed it here. If you are a big kid, feel free to check it out and gain a bit more context. In the clip, the speaker of the line makes the point that although the duration of a wrestling match is a mere six minutes, what happens within can be enough to lift the human spirit.
I now implore you to take a few minutes of your day to check out a rather passionate professional, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology, Dr. Bonnie Bassler Ph.D. Dr. Bassler’s 2009 TED talk is worth watching in its entirety. If you are a biology teacher, the content is crucial. Even if you just happen to be mildly interested in the world around you- then this talk is for you. It is for anyone. To take it a step further, turn your analysis in the direction of public speaking of any sort. Standing in front of a crowd… trying to make a point. What do you see here?
If you’re going to stand and deliver
Ok… 18 minutes.
This presentation takes 18 minutes, not six. 18. In 18 minutes, she conveys the passion for her work in such a way that it is hard to even look away. The thing is, in just this amount of time, I would suggest that she delivers more information than you’d generally try to address in a typical class session. I would also hope that we wouldn’t engage in such exclusively one-way forms of communication in our classrooms for even this long. 18 minutes of purely one-way communication in a classroom of 25 humans isn’t teaching as much as it is preaching. However, here in her TED talk, it works wonderfully.
So what does this mean for us as classroom teachers? Anything?
In my opinion, we must first agree on the fact that for students to actually learn the information brought forth by this presentation, we have to at least have a healthy set of conversations breaking up this body of teacher talk. And again- this is only 18 minutes. How often have you seen (or delivered) a talk that went more than 40 minutes? How did it go? How do you know? In this presentation, she doesn’t really have time to address the prior knowledge of her “students.” She doesn’t have the luxury of checking for understanding. She doesn’t really have the ability, in this amount of time and in this format, to engage others to explain their understanding of the content. Watching this makes me think about the skills required for delivering a mini-lesson. Even though I am still inspired by this chunk of science content, I also have a pile of questions circulating in my head:
- What role does passion play in the classroom?
- What about the same for humor?
- Science teachers are constantly in a quest to make the complex palatable. Does she accomplish this? How so?
- This is obviously an example of a very powerful lecture. What is the best-case scenario for this type of communication within secondary classrooms?
- Notice how she wraps things up near the end. Do you get the sense she’d love to have the audience do the review instead? I do.
- Should all science teachers continue to conduct some level of real science as a practitioner in some way? Why so? Is that realistic? Can you guess why I’m asking this question?
And one last thing… look how she shares the love in the final slide/minute. Do we do this often enough for the people we work with?
The skill of teacher-talk
Perhaps it is odd to use the format of a TED talk to reflect on high school classrooms today. The one-way mode of communication here is obviously rather different than it -should be- in a classroom, considering the way most people actually learn. However, at some point, we reach a time in our classrooms when a solid majority of our students are stuck with the same misconception. At some point, we’ll have to stop the collaboration and conferencing with individuals and small groups. At some point, we’ll have to quickly slam on the breaks and make something universally clear. At some point, we all must deliver a well-timed, carefully-crafted talk to make something that is generally fuzzy, a bit clearer for our students.
Our approaches to pedagogy needn’t swing like a pendulum. We can talk abut this. It’s ok. Eventually, even the most learner-centered classrooms require eyes and minds focused on the words and thoughts of one person. All I’m suggesting is that when you get to be that person… be ready. Be passionate. Remember what can be accomplished in only 18 minutes. How might you assure that you will be?