Five Words Better than 10,000: Teaching & Learning

A few weeks ago, I started to explore Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14 that in communication, five well-chosen and clear words are better than 10,000 wandering words. This time I apply his point to teaching.

Teaching, a special form of human relationship and communication, occurs when someone else attempts to help another learn. Learning occurs when a person gets a new understanding, accepts a mature attitude, or develops a better set of skills. Teaching probably parallels Paul’s understanding of prophecy, which we pointed out last time must lead to “edification, exhortation, and consolation” (v. 3). Without those outcomes, neither prophecy nor teaching, is worth much.

Several moments in my years of teaching and learning stand out as reminders that five words well spoken are better than 10,000 babbling words.

Ray McAfee taught me geometry at Del Oro High School. He was the only teacher I had that ever covered the whole textbook with a month left in the semester. He knew how to communicate his knowledge of geometry to us with clarity and succinctness. We spent the rest of the semester playing games of logic that increased our skills even further. Teaching can be clear, direct, and fun. Way to go Mr. McAfee.

Next, I ran into the writings and talks of Morris Venden and Dick Winn in the 1970s and 1980s. One would later be my pastor and the other my college bible teacher. Both could polish prose and say a lot with a little. Their turn of a phrase and use of words could wiggle new ideas into my mind about God. I had developed some weird and harsh view of God and they had to wiggle well to get some very wonderful views of God and His work into my legalistic mind. Many times in the last 30 years I have been enriched by rereading their words, or listening to their talks. This week Karl Haffner has been reminding us of that powerful time in the 1970s when we were all blessed by the ministry of these two pastors. His week of prayer at Andrews University, AURetroRevival, is focused on recapturing some of the power of Venden’s 1975 words.

When I went to graduate school, it was David Larson, at Loma Linda University, that taught me the need of direct logic in teaching. He would come to class without any notes or books or anything. He would lecture for two hours with a clarity that most of us with copious notes never have mastered. Keep it simple but profound.

Fast forward about a decade. It was my turn at the craft of teaching. I was by this time teaching at the University of Akron, in Ohio. Kay Alderman was a specialist in the psychology of learning and classroom dynamics. She had at the time been teaching for a little less than 40 years, 20 years in K-12 settings and about 20 years in higher education. Her office was right next to mine. One afternoon, I had come back from one of my rare undergraduate courses on professional issues for teachers. Most of my courses were graduate courses in the evening from 4-7 or 7-10 pm. I think she had also walked by my class earlier.

She looked at me and said: “You know Duane, talking is not the same as teaching.” I got the message instantly, it’s meaning forever has robbed me of any smugness about walking into a room and talking out loud and leaving. Teaching had to be about the other person’s development. I had not grasped her tenacious focus on learning and student’s growth like a veteran teacher would be.

That would change over the next several years, and especially when I went to Andrews University. Rarely do I have a chance to lecture now. Most of my work is behind a keyboard, setting up online learning experiences or giving feedback to students. It has forced me to redefine teaching from talking to coaching and more importantly, serving their learning needs. I have taken some criticism for over personalized instruction and individualized feedback, but I see the power of that approach with adult learners who only have time to learn what they desperately need for their intensive leadership work. I had to come alongside them. They were leading and I was serving up academic equipment and tools to help them in their work. Serving as the assistant was hard to get used when I used to see teaching as my being in control of the words. However, I can use fewer words now to get more impact. It is much more rewarding as I see what deeper and more interesting learning can occur when learners are the focus.

A more recent experience brought all these experiences back home to me. I was in the grip of a summer intensive course this summer where a little lecture mixed with lots of interactive learning.  I was days from a much needed vacation to Europe. I was thinking about my decade long experience at Andrews University, my two decades in higher education, and wondering about the new MA participants who had just arrived to take our leadership program. I wondered if our program would do for them what I hoped it would, and what I thought it could do. I knew they were expecting a lot from it. Would it be the transformational learning experience they needed? Would I be the transformational teacher I needed me to be? Would they be the transformational learners God wanted them to be?

I had also been finally getting back a passion for my profession of teaching and learning. I had struggled all my life with a pull to becoming a pastor, a deep desire to become a full-time writer, and with invitations to become an administrator. I had always opted for teaching. It was at times the safe option, the employable option, and finally I was settling into that role for myself. I was also glad not to be overwhelmed with way way too many dissertations, and had now reached a more manageable number. .

I woke with a small but clear voice calling me to “Improve other’s teaching and learning.” I said yes. I didn’t know then nor do I know now what that meant, but it was a yes from a deep longing in my heart that teaching and learning can improve, because it has in my life.

Teaching is about helping others learn, which means it often needs to be personalized which means, one doesn’t often need 10,000 words when five can be more personalized at just the right time.

In their comprehensive review of “Transformational Teaching” psychologists Slavich and Zimbardo (2012) document the growth in learner centered teaching where “the dynamic relationships between teachers, students, and a shared body of knowledge” (p. 569) are leveraged “to put into motion an entire system that enhances students’ beliefs regarding their ability to organized and execute actions that are required for academic success and personal growth” (587) and “to transcend self-interested goals to maximize their potential” (590).

Teaching is a holy thing.

We measure its success not by the abundance of words used but the effect on the other to be edified, exhorted, or comforted.

Thanks God, Paul and Kay for knocking me off my windbag approach to teaching.  It is a lot more fulfilling to be in teaching than merely into talking.


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