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Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> It’s not just a matter of technique
posted on August 1, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
It’s not just a matter of technique

In The Courage to Teach,
Parker Palmer argued that to “teach”
goes far beyond applying methodologies,
technologies, approaches, and tricks to make
people learn, but something very much more.
His argument is so clear, so strong, so
simple, and so clearly linked to his
personal experience that
it would be hard
to ignore. 



about all that reminded
me of something that 
on my first trip to Singapore.
It relates to several of
Palmer’s points. 


In the third year
of UBC’s
Science One program,
a team
of professors from several science
disciplines at the National University of Singapore
observed us for a week. 
On their last night, they
invited me to visit Singapore for a week to
give a plenary talk to faculty and admini-
strators in all disciplines
 and help
plan a program modelled
partly on Science

I agreed, then
began to worry that my
way of teaching might
not work in Asia.


I normally
assume, for example, that
students are self-regulating
learners who are willing,
able, and eager to help
me guide their

That assumption
is enormous, and I do make
it.   I assume other significant things
too, and do tell them so.  
And I expect
them to behave as if those assum-
ptions were both valid
and true of them!

Simply expecting
something doesn’t mean
getting it, of course. 

But once they
‘get’ that I am serious about
this, they take me more seriously.
helps them take my assumptions
and expec
tations more seriously as
well.    Something shifts and the
conversation deepens.

When they
realize that not only do
intend them to behave that
way, but I am already helping
them do it, something
else shifts.  

Trust deepens,
they dig deeper and deeper,
trust each other more and more,
and it continues, in a self-
reinforcing cycle. 

Most of
this is negotiated in
the language of the



It amazes me
that they trust so much,
so quickly, and so deeply, and
amazes me even more that they do
it and do it so well in the languages
of the disciplines they study.
You know, “stuff”. 

Given all that,
it doesn’t amaze me at all that
they learn so much stuff, remember
it so long, and find it so useful in
learning other stuff.  It
doesn’t surprise
me, either.

In fact I expect it!

my courses are
deeply interactive and
based on trust.  We all work
hard to create and maintain that
community and help it grow more use-
ful to us in our learning.  Students openly
share their learning experience with each
other and me.
Necessarily, that entails
exposing their ignorance in public,
and I assume they will do this
– – I call it embracing

Again, that’s
a lot to assume, even in
my own culture.  My knowledge
of Asia was limited to hearing many
times that Asian students hesitate to share
in this way if it risks loss of face. 
I didn’t really
believe it, mainly because Asian immigrant
UBC students  generally adapted to
it fairly easily. But I’d sure
heard it a lot.

everyone here hesitates
share.  Trusting is a dangerous
game that must be safe
enough to work. 

What does it even
mean, anyway, for students to
‘hesitate’ to risk?   What does it imply
about teaching and learning? I hoped it
implied more about teachers’ attitudes and
actions than students’ abilities,
like I see at home.  

Maybe it would work
just fine, b
ut I didn’t know and
worried about that.  I needed to
compare hesitancies.

It would be
foolish to push my approach,
in Singapore or anywhere, if my most
important assumptions didn’t apply. 
I had to
test my assumption that NUS students would
become active learners willing to share,
openly and cooperatively with
their peers.

I arranged
with NUS for the test, then
really started to worry.

I talked with
faculty who came from Asia
or had worked there. All said essentially
the same thing.  “Asian students won’t expose
themselves in public or engage in discussions.”
Immigrant students from Singapore, Hong
Kong, and other Asian countries
said the same thing. 

Even my own
Asian-Canadian immigrant students,
who had personally experienced the power of
interactive engagement, warned me that it could
never work in Asia, even while admitting freely
that they themselves had made the cultural
transition in their new environment. 

Those discussions
were fascinating. Everyone agreed.
Everyone discouraged me
from even trying.

My visit
to Singapore was during
‘dead week’ between the end of
classes and finals, when there are
no classes and students are away.
My hosts worried that few
students would

I suggested that food is
always an important element of
working with students, they made it known
that the food for my session would be great, it
drew volunteers, and we had 40 students
for a two-hour session.

The food wasn’t
just great.  It was spectacularly
wonderful and magnificent.  
told me Singaporean undergrads
are like undergrads everywhere
in at least one way. They
love to eat! 

The food
came at the end and I
knew the answer to my question

by then, so I should have said Singa-
students are like other
students in at least one

more way. 

Here’s how
I answered my
I began the
session with theatre
and deception. 

Only a few words in,
I stopped, turned to the side,
and paced back and forth, stroking
my chin and looking everywhere but
at students, mumbling to myself
but loudly and clearly
enough to hear.

I said something like
“Oh, I may as well tell them.
They might find out anyway.”
I sighed, turned to the
students, and

“When they
invited me to come over
here, I got so excited I could
hardly stand it!  
The first thing
I did when I got home was get
out my Atlas to find

“I looked for
it up at the top of Malaysia,
where I ]knew it was, but it wasn’t
I couldn’t believe it!”

Students looked
at each
other, silent, incredulous
that anyone could think such a thing,
and I
continued, pointing to an invisible
map between us.

“I looked
and I looked and I looked
but it wasn’t there.  I searched
wider and wider arcs, up into Thailand,
Burma and Laos, east to Vietnam,
west to Bangladesh, and still
no Singapore.”  

“Then, finally,
found it.  Under, not over,
What a surprise!  Can you
imagine knowing so little about Asian
geography to make that mistake?
Isn’t that silly?”

They looked at
each other again, clearly
embarrassed for me, and still silent.
I said
I agreed with them that it was
a dumb mistake and promised
not to make it 

“But I need to
caution you not to get too
arrogant.  We’ll need to know some
Canadian geography

“Does everyone
know where Vancouver
Island is?”  All did. “
Big or small?”
Big. “
How big?”  Really big.  “Bigger
or smaller than Singapore?” Bigger.
How much bigger?” And
all hell broke

The room
erupted in a flurry of
productive, active, dynamic, non-
self-conscious discussion. Once it
started it went by itself and
I detected no hesitation.

They decided
Vancouver Island is 2 or 3
times the size of Singapore, still more
than an order of magnitude too small, and we
went on from there
for two solid hours’ engagement
on Canadian ecosystems, economies, and politics with
general scientific import, relevance to Singapore,
and were interesting and challenging
The students
were wonderful!

minutes, they were taking
significant personal risks to explain complex
phenomena they knew little about, defended those
hypotheses with good arguments, argued for and against
ideas others proposed, listened well, spoke clearly and
respectfully to each other, asked each other for
clarification and gave it freely
and sensitively.

Together, they
embraced a far wider array
of factors than any of them could have
handled alone, and they learned well.  In short,
they behaved like every group of students I’ve
seen anywhere in the world. 
This supported my
assumptions and revealed nothing about
students to suggest my approach to
learning wouldn’t work for
NUS students.

the last of the students
had drifted away, several faculty
rushed me from the back of the room with
questions.  “
What did you do to make them talk?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I wasn’t paying attention.
You were there and paying attention, so what
did I do?”
We went round and round like
that for a while, partly to prolong
the agony and build suspense,
and then I said

“It’s not
a technique.
I didn’t
do anything to make them
participate.  They wanted to.  I
assume everyone wants to do that.
All I did was give them something to
engage in  and listen to them.
I wanted
to hear what they had to say, t
hey knew
that, and they gave me what I wanted.
That was for us to think science
together and have a good
time.  W
e gave that
to each other.”

“It’s simpler
and easier than you think
to get students to participate, and
we can do lots of things to help.  I did
several of them today. 
The most important
of them is simple.  I really really really
wanted to hear what they had to
and didn’t keep it secret
that I wanted that.”  

see our willingness and
our want, if it is real, and respond
to it
openly, honestly, and eagerly.  If
we respect and encourage them enough,
make it safe enough, show them how
to do it, model it, and recognize
their doing it, they’ll

We talked
about those things for the
rest of the week, and the next year
we talked about them for three months
when I returned to work in the
program and help them
improve it. 

Teachers always
go round about that.  But as long as
they think it’s about technique, nothing very
significant happens in their classrooms. 
fail to communicate the deep message that
they are there to interact with their students and
that their students are there to interact with
each other, it can’t and won’t happen
regardless of the technology.
How could it?


one Dean tried to
talk us into new technology
that would allow lecturers to read
from a computer in real time the names
of students who ask questions, along with
their photos, scores on exams, etc.  She thought
using that tool to ‘know’ 300 students in a
class would bring trust and intimacy
to large classes.
Perhaps, but I
doubt it. That’s not what
it’s about.

That the NUS
profs assumed I somehow
made their students participate by
applying a technique reminds me of a
1300 mile motorcycle trip my son David
and I took when he was about
11 years old. 

On the second
or third day, I saw something
curious in the rear view mirrors.  When
we met big trucks, he made complex gyrations
on the back of the bike – head, hands,
and feet. But only when we
met trucks.  

At our next
pit stop, I asked him about
it.  He had noticed that I could make
truck drivers reach up, pull the rope,
and honk their air horns at us,
he said, and was trying to
learn how I did it.

He tried things
out experimentally to
learn my secret technique.
But there was no secret
because it wasn’t a

David didn’t
know that, just as many
educators don’t know it about
students participating in
their classes. 

He didn’t believe
the simple truth when he
heard it, either.  And neither
do many educators.
The simple truth
then, and it seems simpler and truer
to me today, is that
it’s not just a
of technique.

We do need
to be able to do things
teachers, and we need to do a lot of
them.  T
hat’s why I put “just” up there in
the title.
Not just technique. That’s not
where the magic is.  T
he magic is in
engagement is vis-
and nothing much
will happen with-
out it. 


magic is
in the meat,
and t
he mind
comes along
for the


This is not
something we make
like we make note-
taking happen
by expecting
of what we say
in class.

It happens,
but we don’t make
it happen.  I
t happens
by itself.

Chemists would say
it’s spontaneous.  
It happens because
of us 
at first, because
if we weren’t there it
But we don’t make it
, even then. 

Nobody can.
ut we can let it happen, and
anybody can. We can stir up trouble,
them to think with each other about it,
step out of the way and
let it happen.

It takes a lot of
work to create communities like
in the first place, to create ‘course culture‘,
I wouldn’t question that for a millisecond,
but it takes less work for students to do their
own learning and, better
than any
other way I know, it works
for them

It takes courage as
well, as Parker Palmer reminds us in
his title,
and takes willingness to fall on our
faces and fail, but
we risk that anyway with
‘stand and deliver’
and the rewards are
greater this way,
so why not?
Why not indeed.

This story refers,
directly or indirectly, to other stories
on this site. 
The links below represent a kind
of web in which a few themes appear over and over
in my teaching, my development work in education,
my speaking and writing about learning, and
my experience as a learner, both in
and out of schools.

The plenary talk
I gave on my first trip to
Singapore was on Teaching for Creativity.
A year later, I published a paper on the topic
in CDTLink, a publication of the Centre for
Development of Teaching and Learning,
National University of Singapore.
It was later r
eprinted in
Creativity at Work


In Secrets of
Silence in the Classroom

and The Most Important Silences
Have Been My Own
, I expanded on the idea
of talking to myself in front of students and de-
monstrated it in
Making Magic Together. It is not
really a ‘silence’ when I do that, I know, but it is
quiet, private at least in a theatrical sense, and
they must listen carefully to hear what I say.
“Shut up!” I imagine them saying
to each other, “He’s talking
to himself and I want
to hear it!”

The main
take-home lesson from
those stories is not about pseudo-
silences like mumbling to myself but
real silence – keeping my mouth shut while I
teach, saying nothing.  That’s not even teach-
ing, the way we usually define it, but k
my mouth shut is one of the
more effective
things I can do, on occasion, to empower
learning in others.
It certainly
empowers listening on
my part!

I spoke about
that empowerment of
listening in my Letter to Martha
Piper and related issues in
Making Magic
, Stories about Stories, and Engagement
is Visceral
.  And in A Decade of Innovation in
Science Education
 I spoke about how we
created programs at UBC that
allow it to happen. 

My reports
The Special Programme
in Science
 and Thoughts for
the Camosun Community
 are about
achieving similar aims in other places.
Letter to my Fifth Grade Teacher
is about
empowering that kind of learning and
Kids, Hummingbirds, and the RCMP
shows how adults can stand in
the way of it. 

Teaching for
Creativity in Science
, Frank
Spear and the Pea Seeds
, and Architects
of their Own Education
 give real-life,
real-student examples of the
fruits of such silences.

I have a ‘thing’
for good teacher movies, and there are
some great ones.  With respect to my reference to
‘stand and deliver’ at the end, I think Edward
James Olmos’
Stand and Deliver is one
of the best teacher movies ever.

Edited May 2022

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