Educational Reports

“Telling teaching and the dilemma of doing”

Telling: the Actor, the Drama Critic, and the Storyteller

Vivian Paley is a preschool teacher who began audio taping her kindergarten classes as a way of ‘listening to what children say.’ (Paley 1986a). Her efforts launched her into two decades of writing about what went on among the learners in her classrooms. She says of this endeavor: The classroom has all the elements of theater, and the observant, self-examining teacher will not need a drama critic to uncover character, plot, and meaning. We are, all of us, the actors trying to find the meaning of the scenes in which we find ourselves. (1986b, 131)

As a teacher capturing her own work, Paley balances how the insider as ‘actor’ and the outsider as ‘drama critic’ see things. As the teacher, she played a lead role in creating and sustaining the plot of her class. Then, later, as she listened to the tape of what her children said, she found she could ‘uncover character, plot, and meaning’ of the drama in which she was a key player. She thus embodies the essential human drive to observe and make sense of one’s world. As she says, ‘We are, all of us, … trying to find the meaning of the scenes in which we find ourselves.’

What is telling teaching?

I begin with Vivian Paley’s comments because they frame what I would like this column to be about. Like an anthropologist, Paley devotes considerable energy and talent to understanding her own students as they go about learning. She uses the twin processes of observation, or trying to truly see what is happening, and self-examination, or what we might call reflection. She thus embarks on studying both the outer and the inner worlds of her work as a teacher. This process is what I would call telling teaching. The work combines careful, disciplined examination of what is happening in among students as they learn, with self-examination and reflection on why that learning is unfolding as it is and how one’s teaching fits into the puzzle. To tell teaching, then, is to examine what is going on in one’s classroom, to question why it happens as it does, and to assess how one’s teaching is suiting that learning.

Why does it matter?

In this last phrase, ‘how one’s teaching is suiting that learning,’ there is a clear statement of value and belief. Caleb Gattegno (1976), the instigator of the Silent Way, used to write and talk about how teaching needed to be subordinated to learning. Like Maria Montessori, who pioneered work in child-centered elementary education with her philosophy of ‘following the child,’ Gattegno advocated for the primacy of learning over teaching. Between teaching and learning, learning is the more powerful and comprehensive process of the two. Learning can be present without teaching; but, as Earl Stevick asked in Teaching languages: A Way and Ways, can you say you have taught if someone has not learned? As teachers, we tend to forget, or at least overlook, this commonplace when we are in the classroom. We can fall into the false and untenable logic that what we are doing as teachers is somehow causing our students to learn. This process of telling teaching can be an invaluable corrective to that illusion; it can recenter the process of teaching on learning and what learners are doing.

There is a second, and perhaps more political, reason for why telling teaching matters. Teaching centers on activity, on doing things with students that may lead to learning. But because the common perception is that teaching causes learning, teachers are constantly caught in the dilemma of whether what they are doing is the ‘right’ thing, whether there might be something ‘better’ that could be more effective, enjoyable, etc. Psychologist Eleanor Duckworth has spent her professional life ‘understanding children’s understandings’. In her essay, “The virtues of not knowing”, Duckworth (1987) speaks about this dilemma of doing. She writes that “in most classrooms, it is the quick right answer that is appreciated. Knowledge of the answer ahead of time is, on the whole, more valued than ways of figuring it out.” (p. 64). In concluding, she makes the observation that, “What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know.” (1987; p. 68).

Unfortunately most teaching is not oriented towards ‘not knowing;’ students and teachers are by-and-large not encouraged to take risks, to speculate, and to probe things they are not sure of. The pressures of accountability– as measured by covering curriculum, successful performances on standardized assessments, and of maintaining classroom order and authority– leave many teachers with little space to explore what does not make sense, what they do not have an answer for, or what they do not understand about their students’ learning.

There are many political factors and social norms that underlie this drive for right answers in teaching, which I am calling the dilemma of doing. Joe McDonald (1992) is a teacher-researcher who now works with a U.S. national school reform project, the Coalition of Essential Schools. McDonald describes this norm as a “conspiracy of certainty” (p. 2) in which questioning, doubting, speculating, or wondering about teaching are viewed as signs of weakness or inability to do the job on the part of the teacher. After all, the reasoning goes, neither administrators nor students, let alone their parents, want teachers who ‘don’t know what they are doing.’ So the speculation and questioning that is at the heart of generating knowledge in other fields and professions somehow doesn’t fit in classroom teaching. This social norm in schools can create an attitude of conservatism among teachers that there is little to be gained in taking risks, asking questions, and focusing on what you don’t know.

The dilemma of doing is compounded by the fact that acting on not-knowing is essentially private affair. Listen to the second-person, private affirmation in what Duckworth says: ‘what you do about what you don’t know determines what you will ultimately know.’ Teachers see what they are doing, what goes on in their classrooms, but they rarely tell it publicly. What they do say publicly about teaching is usually expressed in genres that have limited social impact. The narratives which teachers use are often labeled negatively as ‘war stories’ or ‘gossip,’ or they may be categorized as opinion or self-interested positioning. This is the second reason why telling teaching matters: If teachers tell their work as they see and do it, if they talk about the fundamental dilemma that teaching does not cause learning and yet teachers must act as if it does, teachers will be taking a critical step towards exposing the basic nature of the work.

In this column, I would like to explore what telling teaching means and why it matters to the status and professionalization of teachers. I want to examine some of the techniques and procedures that can serve readers who are teachers in observing and examining the outer and inner worlds of their work in their classrooms. And I hope to include accounts from readers who are engaging in the process. I see the column as a way to open up to public comment and professional examination this dilemma of doing which I believe is central in teachers’ work. And if we are successful, we will be contributing to what we know about teaching by ‘doing something’ about what we don’t know.

Donald Freeman


In these columns, I plan to treat references somewhat differently from conventional academic writing. Rather than simply footnoting ideas, after each column I will include a small number of full references that I think are particularly pertinent to the topic, useful and therefore worth reading if you want to go further with the ideas I have written about. I will also briefly annotate the references I include.

Duckworth, Eleanor. 1987. “The virtues of not knowing”. In The having of wonderful ideas and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

  • A great collection of short essays on teaching and learning. Duckworth, who worked closely with Jean Piaget, is a veteran constructivist. She writes with great clarity and knowledge of classrooms and children. Well worth reading and discussing with colleagues. Gattegno, Caleb. 1976. The commonsense of teaching foreign languages. New York: Educational Solutions.
  • The first five chapters are the classic exposition of Gattegno’s ideas about the subordination of teaching to learning. The book may be hard to get a hold of, but it is worth it. McDonald, Joseph. 1992. Teaching: Making sense of an uncertain craft. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • McDonald was a high school teacher for many years before getting involved in education reform in the U.S. This book is a readable, teacher-based account of how he got involved in working with colleagues to tell teaching. Paley, Vivian. 1986a. “On listening to what children say.” Harvard Educational Review, 56 (2), pp. 122-131.
  • In this article, Paley describes how she became involved in ‘listening’ to children in her classroom by audio-taping and transcribing what they said. It is great account on how to get started in observing learning. It serves as a very readable, methodological introduction for her books listed below. Paley, Vivian. 1986b. Mollie is three: Growing up in school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Any of Paley’s work is well worth reading. She writes with wonderful fluency and energy about her students and what they do. Her other books include, among others: Wally’s Stories (1981), The boy who would be a helicopter (1990), and White teacher (reprinted 1989), all from Harvard University Press.

Earl Stevick’s Teaching languages: A Way and Ways (Boston: Heinle and Heinle/ITP. 1980) is a classic in humanizing language teaching. Although it continues to be available, copies can be difficult to locate. Stevick has refashioned and extended his thinking in his 1998 book Working with teaching methods: What’s at stake? (Boston: Heinle and Heinle/ITP), which I highly recommend. In What’s at stake?, Stevick brings together some of his earlier work on memory with his examination of teaching, learning, and ‘humanistic’ teaching methods.

Donald Freeman
Center for Teacher Education, Training, and Research
School for International Training
Brattleboro, VT 05301 USA
web address:

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Ricardo Steffens

Profesor de Lenguaje e Idiomas de la I.E.F.A. Administrador de Coordina Medios Escolares. Le interesan procesos investigativos e información en la actividad Lectoescritural como proceso y uso de las TICs.

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