Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Best Practices in Teaching: In Business and in School

As I mentioned in my last post, I just came from PopTech! where (again) extraordinary people meet and speak, both on and off the stage.

Every year, Camden Maine, October. Amazing.

Ben Zander Inspires

One of the highlights of the conference was Ben Zander's presentation. Ben is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and about the most exuberant person I've ever met.

In this talk, Ben offered two models of thinking: one of "The Downward Spiral" (linear thinking in binaries) and one of multiple possibilities. He then led a 15-year-old cellist called Nicolai through a Bach piece several times. Each time, Ben coached Nicolai so that by the end of the session, the piece sounded as good as it could be. It was a pleasure to watch.

One last point worth noting: Ben told Nicolai that when he makes a mistake, rather than making a face and drawing down his body, he should throw up his hands and say "How Fascinating!" The fear of making mistakes is perhaps the biggest challenge to learning in our culture, both in business and in school. We're trained to guess what our superiors or teachers want us to say.

Everyone rose to their applauding furiously when Ben was done. It was an extraordinary performance.

Later That Evening . . .

In order to continue the conversation about models of possibility, Ben and his ex-wife Roz invited us to a local inn to continue the conversation about how Ben inspired his student.

The meeting presented a frustrating experience -- both Ben and Roz spoke in abstract and extreme terms about their rival models.

The possibility model offered no hierarchy between expert (teacher) and novice (student or employee). It left every option open. Solutions were infinite.

The other model, by contrast, was a false habit we've learned of competing with each other, satisfying ourselves with winning when others lose, and offering only binary solutions.

What Happened Next

A few people got up to ask how to apply Ben and Roz's philosophy to non-artistic fields -- how does a boss inspire employees? How does a physics professor -- when there are right and wrong answers -- offer his students the option of infinite possibilities?

No one in the gathering had taught like Ben. Many were business people with disaffected employees who had never taught formally at all. After several questions from the crowd, it became clear that no one was sure how to articulate what was wanted from the speakers.

And like many great teachers, Ben's teaching gift is instinctive. He couldn't quite connect people's questions to what he could offer.

Frustration is Good

I got up and offered a compromise. I pointed out that there was indeed hierarchy in Ben's relationship onstage with Nicolai. There always is with a teacher and student. I offered that what Ben did was lead Nicolai to see what it was that HE saw.

If a student or employee doesn't see the beauty and value of what the teacher or employer sees, it's the teacher or employer's failing. The challenge is both seeing the beauty or miraculousness oneself AND seeing where the blocks are for the student so that we can break them down. Once a student sees the vision as the teacher does, he or she will move toward it.

It was helpful for me to be frustrated. I now know what I think great teaching is.

How about you?

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