The Art of Teaching

I had mixed feelings about this Atlantic article, which focuses on the importance of promoting students’ joy in learning. On one hand — duh. On the other, in this age of standards, skills, grit, self-control, and college and career readiness, the point is worth making. But in making it, it’s important not to set the joy of learning in opposition to the hard work. The two are really partners.

When I taught, I always thought my first job was to create a spark, to give my students a sense of the importance, the fun, and, yes, the joy of math. Without that, learning is a slog for everyone, students and teachers alike, and you rarely get anyone’s best work. But once you have joy and excitement, you still have to harness them. You have to get students to challenge themselves by thinking in new ways and trying hard problems — which can involve frustration and at least the temporary suspension of joy. The art of teaching is balancing these. You balance them by making a promise: here’s something hard, but if you stick with it, you’ll figure it out. I’ll help you through it, and when you do get it, you’ll feel the joy again, sometimes even more deeply than you did before.

Done right, joy leads to hard work, which leads to success and joy, and the cycle starts all over again. It takes courage to make those promises, and skill to keep them, and the best teachers make and keep them over and over again.



Watching Game 5 of the Giants-Cardinals series. Top of the first, Cards have runners on first and second, one out. The atter hits a line drive to third base. Giants’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval leaps up, catches the ball (the batter’s out), throws quickly to second. Looks like the ball gets there just a hair before the runner on second can dive back in. Umpire calls the runner out at second — double play! Here comes the Cards’ manager to argue with the ump.

Except that this year, baseball uses instant replay. Here’s how it works: a manager has the right to challenge most plays, asking for an umpire’s call to be overturned based on a review of the replay. The caveat is that if you lose a challenge (meaning that after a review of the replay, the call on the field is upheld), you also lose the right to challenge for the rest of the game. So when you challenge, especially early in the game, you better be sure that the umpire’s wrong.

The Cards’ manager speaks briefly with the umpire. Meanwhile, someone on the Cards’ side is reviewing the replay. They must decide that the umpire’s probably right (they don’t challenge and risk losing the right to challenge in the future), because the manager returns to the dugout. It all takes less than a minute.

When replay was introduced, the worry was that managers challenging calls all the time would slow down the game. Only here it feels like it’s actually sped up the game. If you’ve watched enough baseball, you’ve seen many long arguments, frustrated managers venting endlessly to umps who never had any mechanism to change their mind. But with the new rule, the manager has (1) a lot more control, and (2) a strong incentive to be correct. The Cards’ manager gets to make a decision, he decides the call against his team was right, and we quickly move on.

Empowering people, based on the right incentives, can go a long way.