Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on August 1, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Secrets of Silence in the Classroom

Interviewing me
for my first teaching job,
at a high school, Ernie Wutzke, the
Principal, took me to visit the room of
Art, the biology teacher I would replace
if I got the job.  He said
it was impossible
to predict what would happen in
Art’s classroom, and made it
clear he thought that a
very good thing.

When we entered
the room, three students were
at the blackboard arguing about details
of photosynthesis  or DNA and the rest of
the class was fully engaged in the discussion.
Art was lying on his back on a bench along the
window with a book for a pillow,
Ernie and I stood at the back of
the room while the argument raged
with no sign of life from Art.

After a while
the discussion took a turn
as arguments tend to do, toward
the personal. “
That’s stupid!”, a student
exclaimed, others responded in kind, and
it escalated.  After letting it go for a while,
Art stretched, rolled slowly and silently
but theatrically onto his side on the bench,
propped up his sleepy head with his fore-
arm, and everyone in the room stopped
and looked at him, listening but
not yet
hearing anything.

They knew what he was going to say!

After what
seemed like forever,
Art commented that while
at the beginning of the discussion
everyone had been listening carefully to
everyone else and learning from it,
he didn’t
think anyone was listening anymore.
“You might
learn more if you listened to each other instead of
trying to prove how much you know”,
and he
rolled back into his napping position,
went back to sleep, and the
discussion continued. 

Ernie winked
at me and we left the
room.  He said
Art was the
best teacher he’d ever known,
but in all the time he’d worked there,
Ernie had never once actually caught
him teaching.
More than any of the
other teachers he’d known, Art tried
new things, some of which flopped
badly. “B
ut if you’re a tenth as
good as he is“, said Ernie,
you’ll be great.

I never
actually met Art,
but for 52 years he’s been
a hero of mine and an influential
During those few minutes in Art’s
class, I learned one of the most valuable
lessons of my entire teaching career.
the less I teach them the
more they learn.

in the same
room the next fall, I
saw how difficult it was to keep
my mouth shut and allow students
to explore ideas on their own
without my needing to
profess to

I realized that it was
easier to keep my mouth shut
when my hands were busy, so I
carved small sculptures in chalk in
class with my knife. 
At the end of  class
as I congratulated them
on a job well
done, I presented tiny sculptures
to students who’d contributed
significantly that day, and
taxpayers footed the bill
for the artwork.

a month or so of
doing this, the carving had
become much more than a trick
to help me keep my mouth shut. 
It was
a symbol, a signal, a trigger, a ritual, and
an important component of our classroom
culture that became more effective as we
practiced it.
The more they practiced
talking with each other and the
more I practiced staying out
of their way, the more
we got done. 

As if by magic,
the simple act of taking out
my knife, beginning to carve, and
keeping my mouth shut impelled students to
discuss things deeply with each other. 
Teachers are
sort of like
Pavlov’s dog salivating when Pavlov rang the
bell – – they teach.  Fortunately, students are like Pavlov’s
dog about learning with each other, so
 it happens easily.
We now know that interactive engagement among students
is the #1 most significant factor in development of
conceptual understanding and problem-solving ability,
at least by undergraduate science students.
Given the
universal compulsion of professors to profess, it
follows that we must learn to remain silent
in our classrooms. 
In the various ways
it emerged in my career, the cheap
trick of carving chalk in class
served me well for


Can teachers even have knives anymore?
Oh.  I forgot.  Some people think
they need to carry guns.
I’ve never tried to

carve with a
they don’t
have chalk anymore
either, so it doesn’t matter.


Slowly and
I peeled
skins of fruits or vegetables with my
knife as students filed into class, and
and ate them, slowly and contemplatively,
relaxed conversation with the students. 
That was
a first-year university biology course
for racial min-
ority students
in 1969. Each session began with a
short discussion of the skins of things,
Given the
racial tensions of the time, some of those dis-
were hilarious, depending on
what I happened to be peeling that
and whatever students
said about it.  It
us up for the work
were there
to do

Also starting
in high school teaching,
I sketched students in
and gave them what I’d drawn.
I exam-
ined snakes in snake cages
along the window,
gazed out the window, peered into 60 sealed
gallon jars on shelves in the window – –
designed aquatic ecosystems
struggling to survive.
I studied architecture I’d studied dozens of times
before. Art
pretended to take a nap.  Maybe he
did nap. Maybe some special kind of alarm
he could set woke him up when
students needed him.

As a
professor later, I took
small stone sculptures with me
to classes, committee meetings, office
hours and PhD exams,
and sanded them
quietly and unobtrusively while participating
fully in the proceedings. 
This went on for
First people came to expect it
from me.  Then, after a while for
some, but rather easily, to
ignore it and get to
the business at

Here are two
of those early sculptures,
Beast, in jade, and
Flight from the Island,
in rhodonite. 
Each is between 1 1/2 and 2″ high,
not counting bases.  T
hey are tiny, and I sanded both
in meetings and classes.  Beast was a graduation gift
for a student in my first-year biology class who had
worked in my hummingbird lab until she graduated.
Zena Tooze later studied wolves for her MSc, then
founded and directed a primate rehabilitation
centre in Nigeria,


Photo by Lee Gass.



Flight from the Island.
Photo by Stuart Dee.


By a similar token,
meetings with obsessive note-takers
were much more effective when we conducted
them outside, walking briskly through whatever the
Note-takers rarely listen as well as they could
anyway, so talking while walking was a good way to help
them listen. 
Many people in universities, both faculty
and students, are infected with the disease of note-
taking, in fact, and that turned my office
hours into opportunities
to exercise.

Walking while
talking and talking while
walking kept us breathing, kept
us thinking and feeling and cleared the
air for us to listen.  It
made it possible for us,
really, for us to converse with one other. 
of our need to keep breathing as we walked, we
didn’t speak until we had something to say.
That kept us saving up air and listening.

When Maria Klawe
became Vice President at UBC,
we discovered she did something similar
to my sanding and chalk-carving ‘thing’ in
meetings and classes.
Maria painted water-
colours in meetings, even Board of Directors’
meetings and meetings with ‘suits’ downtown.
Now, as President of Harvey Mudd College,
renowned mathematician and computer
scientist, she still does. 
In two wonder-
ful videos,
Maria discusses that
and gives

Maria gave me a painting of a
male rufous hummingbird for my 60th
birthday and it hangs in our home today.
I hope she painted it in a Board meeting.
Male rufous hummingbirds are fierce


Male rufous hummingbird and flowers.
Watercolour painting by Maria Klawe.

Keeping your
mouth shut while teaching is
not rocket science, people!  And it’s a
no-brainer once you think about it.  It’s not
our job to teach our students.  It’s our job to be
sure our students learn, and that is very different.
Once the magic starts,
all we have to do is shut up,
stand back, step out of the way, and let it happen.
usually have to stir up some trouble to get
it started and intervene sometimes to keep
it going, like Art did with his teenagers.
But we we don’t, can’t, and
not try to make it happen. 
magic happens by itself.

As far as I’ve
been able to tell, that’s how
creativity works.  I’ve said what
I mean by creativity in other stories.  I’ve
also said s
tudents have to do that part for them
selves.  It’s often easier for them to do it in groups,
but they have to do it themselves.  Not just students,
either.  \Everyone.  Overwhelmingly, my experience
has been that students are more than happy to
if their social environment encourages,
rather than discourages that . 

It sure beats memorizing stuff

Beats reading
what memorizers memorize,
too.  Can you imagine reading that
all your life?  What a drag and a lot of
work for little gain – – it’s a perfect lose-lose
 Not only did I not want to waste
my own time doing that.  I didn’t want my students
to waste theirs memorizing.  We don’t need to
test what they know.  Just how they use it.
If they don’t understand it they can’t
use it, regardless of  what
they know.

But I had to shut up every once
in a while and let
them do

I often
tell the story about Art
in talks.  Though I think I called Art
Al in one of them, here are two examples.

Stories about Stories and Making Magic Together.

An earlier version
of this story is in the book
Silences in Teaching and Learning
Here is a review of a reading
from that book

When Gary Poole came
to UBC to direct our
and Learning Centre
, he and I talked a
lot about our dreams for the future and how
to collaborate to make them real. 
We usually
did this practically at a dead run. 
campus, down the road to English Bay,
along the beach trail and  part way
back, up the cliff on a steep
trail, and back to our
offices for the rest
of the day. 

If either
of us had something hot
and burning to say on the way up
the cliff  but couldn’t say it for lack of
we stopped as briefly as possible
and picked it up when we could walk again,
still out of breath but able to speak and listen.
telling others about those meetings, Gary referred
to my style of communicating, punningly, as ‘
running meetings’.  I think he was daring them
to meet
with me and many took him up
on it.  It was great exercise while it
lasted.  Now I get exercise
in other ways.


Conducting Running Meetings
An operating manual.

Conducting running meetings
is an art and a skill.  So much depends
on conditioning that breathing rate, which
you easily hear, is a reliable indicator of how
meetings are going at any given moment.
As walking
speed increases, so do metabolism and rate of breathing,
and because talking competes with walking for oxygen,
it is useful in certain kinds of conversations to push
breathing rate high enough
to favour listening
over speaking, then ebb back or even
stop so my communicants can
speak and I can listen.


Often when
Gary Poole and I
charged up the hill,
talks reached a crescendo near
the top of a steep, punishing trail up
to the plateau, just
when we were most
out of breath, most in oxygen debt, and most
aware of the pain of
Lactate BurnIdeas churned
faster than either of us could have articulated though
neither of us could talk about them at the moment.
We couldn’t talk about anything because we were
out of breath. 
But we remembered, talked later,
and implemented a small fraction of those
ideas.  The
Institute for the Scholar-
ship of Teaching and Learning
grew out of a walk and a
talk like that.

Gary Poole
and I having brainstorms
near the top of a steep climb when
we were out of oxygen reminds me of Luis
Sobrino’s response when I asked him in Science One
class one day where he gets his best ideas.
Luis said ‘On the bicycle.’  When I grilled him further about it,
he told us about his daily ride from home on a boat in False
Creek, through Jericho Beach and Spanish Banks parks
to the bottom of the hill up to UBC, the same hill as
ours, but on a road and sidewalk instead of a
steep trail and biking instead of huffing up
a trail less than a kilometer from
where he was telling us about.

Every morning,
rain, shine, snow or ice, Luis
stashed his bike in the bushes, stripped
off all his clothes, and swam in the ocean
before riding up the hill to his office in the
physics building. His best ideas came
a little lower on the hill than ours
near a tree where an eagle
perched sometimes
on my own rides
up the road.

For what
happened to my
consciousness near the bottom
of a steep descent, see 
Lactate Burn.

Edited January 2019

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