My Big Teaching Idea

My big teaching idea came on a baseball field.

One day while teaching an eight year old to hit a ball with a bat I had a vision that altered all my teaching ideas forever.

I homeschooled other people's kids for about five years and it was during that time that I was blessed with an insight that has guided my work ever since.

Dale and I were at the baseball field in the park across the street from my house, where I offered private teaching services.

Our friend and my other student that day, eight-year-old Keith, was helping us as best he knew how.

Keith was encouraging Dale and making every suggestion that popped into his head.

Keith, in contrast with Dale, was a natural and confident athlete but had a great store of patience for helping his friends.

Keith and I had thought of just about every teaching ida that could be thought of to help Dale.

We tried different bats, balls, pitching distances, holding the bat differently, and every teaching idea we could think to adjust Dale and his performance.

We also varied our own behavior by taking turns pitching, talking about how we remember learning to bat and demonstrating our own batting techniques.


I always knew Dale was challenged.

He was the first child I ever taught (of very few) who truly needed his prescription of Ritalin.

Dale was born drug affected and his adopted mother was a school district employee who had studied prenatal development and specifically the effects of maternal drug abuse.

She figured by Dale's pattern of neurological dysfunction that his mother had probably done some heavy cocaine in his fourth month in her womb, not to mention whatever she was doing when he was born.

So, after what seemed like hours of unsuccessful coaching, there I was pitching a dirty white baseball with red dirt-dulled stitches underhand to Dale standing with an shiny aluminum bat only 10 or 15 feet away.

At that particular moment, just as I was releasing the ball (that Dale would swing mightily at, but miss) I saw something.

In that instant I made an observation that lead to a teaching idea that has driven my fascination with education ever since.

Just as I uncurled my fingers and the ball was released to fly towards Dale, he twitched, ever so slightly.

Birth of a Teaching Idea

That twitch did not reveal to me how to help him. Only our determined, relentlessly loyal and supportive practice eventually helped him improve his batting.

What occurred to me was a very peculiar vision of the task that I had chosen as a profession.

Suddenly, every one of the details that Keith and I had attempted to adjust became dimensions in what mathematicians call an n-dimensional space.

An n-dimensional space is an imaginary space that has an arbitrary number of dimensions, anywhere from one to infinity.

Since the task itself was a fairly straight forward physical coordination of motor skills, it might be described by a small number of dimensions; perhaps just bodily orientation, muscular readiness, perceptual alertness, and appropriate intention.

Within this imaginary space in which the behavior occurs there is easily imagined a particular region in the space that we would call, “success”.

My job, as the teacher, is to help him, as the student, to move out of the space of “failure” and into the space of “success.”

This is a pretty straight forward general teaching idea but what occurred to me upon observing his twitch was that Dale may have had things thrown at him before under less favorable conditions and his emotional response to having something thrown was something that I could neither control for, nor reliably find out about.

But, rather than simply adding a single dimension of emotion, this insight lead me to realize that there were a potentially infinite number of dimensions if I wanted to take into account his whole history with bats, balls, throwing, where we were, the time of day, his experience with men, and everything else that could possibly affect his mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual state of being.

The challenge of this teaching idea is not only moving the results of his performance but accurately discerning, from nearly infinite possibilities, both the relevant dimensions and the appropriate direction to move within each of those dimensions.

Not to mention the challenge of figuring out what combination of causal factors are relevant in each dimension and responsible for movement in the desired direction.

As you can imagine, this teaching idea was initially a little overwhelming.

But over time, as I have studied and read in various fields my understanding of it has gone through a metamorphosis.

My insight was not simply a realization of how potentially daunting teaching can be, but was the revelation that how the student experiences the world is the fundamental currency of our exchange as teacher and student, as opposed to the traditional notion that the currency of teaching is teachers delivering knowledge, skills and information to students.

What my insight points to is not the traditional approach of accounting for teaching performances with students, but instead points to developing a map of experiences that actually accords with the student's world.

But the mapping metaphor only became clear over more time and continued metamorphosis of my teaching ideas.

Developing My Teaching Idea

Around the same time I was teaching Dale, my girlfriend and I were developing the spiritual dimension of our relationship.

She was a musician and we also had an extensive ongoing discussion about how important an audience is to the performance of music.

More specifically, how the mystical potential of music to move the audience is similar to the experiences that arose out of the spiritual dimensions of sexuality.

In the course of this extended conversation I talked with her about several pivotal experiences that I have had as both an audience member and as a performer.

Once when I was in my early twenties I was attending a conference at Portland State University.

One of the sessions I attended featured this amazing black woman with elegant streaks of grey in her hair, whose name I cannot recall, who was standing in front of a half empty room, and speaking on a subject that was only a tangent to my interest in the conference.

I was seated in the middle of the room but found that she was fascinating.

Besides the fascination with her what sticks with me is that at the end of her presentation she went to the back of the room and stood by the door to meet those of us who had heard her presentation.

I thought what she said to me a little odd at the time because she remarked that I was a really great audience.

She said how she really appreciated how much energy I put into listening to her and gave her so much to work with. I left the room slightly bewildered because I had never heard of a presenter or performer giving an audience member such a specific compliment.

Of course, you always hear musicians talking about how great an audience is, but she was not being the least bit general and she did not say anything even similar to other people whom she talked to before and after me.

And she wasn't flirting, either, her gaze was pure appreciation and moved on without hesitation to the next person in line.

Later in life I got similar compliments and even attended some workshops that focused on listening skills so I began to understand that certain ways of paying attention can sometimes be unusually rewarding for all concerned.

But, it was in that conversation with my lover that it all came together and I realized that, in fact, I could sometimes be an audience as intensely as being a lover.

The Importance of Context for My Teaching Idea

This realization about the value of being audience brought me back to my most cherished memory of being a performer.

At the end of my second year at Reed College I was cast to play Laertes in the “15-minute Hamlet” a comic parody of Shakespeare's classic by Tom Stoppard.

This was also the last of only a handful of times that I took a hallucinogenic drug, in this case LSD.

The play was being done as the final project for a friend of mine in the Directing class which usually only played one performance on the last Friday of regular classes for the year.

But at Reed we have a tradition called Renn Faire that takes place on that weekend at the start of reading week which is a week without classes that precedes final exam week.

Renn Faire started out as a Rennaisance Faire back in the late sixties but has since been transformed into a sort of psychedelic celebration of playful indulgence with every kind of whimsical distraction imaginable.

So, we scheduled a special second performance for Saturday afternoon of Renn Faire.

We had a very successful Friday night performance (the one that counted for the director's grade.)

But, after getting our costumes on and heading out to the front lawn where we were planning to perform, it started raining.

The director puzzled out how to proceed and decided we would simply move ourselves into the Student Union (S.U.) building and delay the start time to allow for the change in venue.

Out on the front lawn a marimba band was just getting rained out, so we ran around announcing that we would shortly be performing in the S.U.

I have never before or since seen the S.U. so packed with human beings.

It was wall-to-wall with people on the floor, sitting in chairs, standing on chairs and filling the balconies on either end as well.

We had a tiny little space in the middle to work with.

Now, consider the situation, there was a seething sea of sweaty college kids who just came in out of the rain after dancing to the happy music of marimba, we're having to improvise adjustments to all our movement to accommodate these masses of people, including our sword fights and my world was beginning to become chemically enhanced.

Fortunately, the performance went off flawlessly and everyone was ecstatic.

The amazing thing about that peak experience was the confluence of many factors that had everyone focusing attention in a particular way.

The primary cause of the intensity I experienced was the exchange of energy, the exchange of attention, between the audience and us performers.

The feedback between me, as performer, and my audience is very similar to the feedback between lovers, or the feedback between a teacher and student, or the feedback available in any meaningful relationship.

I believe that the conditions in the S.U. that day, the context within which we performed our play, were coincidently ideal to generating an ecstatic relationship between us and our audience.

Some aspects of the context were carefully honed to bring that relationship into being (i.e. the script and our rehearsed delivery of it) but there are many other factors that simply arose spontaneously out of the moment (i.e. the rain that drove us all into the S.U. and our ways of adapting our scripted actions to the very cramped “stage” area.)

It cannot be argued that we were especially talented performers, nor that the script made it a sure thing.

What made it work so well was the synchronicity of the whole, the confluence of individuals in a culture embedded within a society on a planet in which cells aggregated to form the individuals who could be in that space to experience that series of moments in time and have them mean something extraordinary.

To say that another way, the experience that I had was significantly affected by the molecular influence of LSD on my brain, it was significantly influenced by my choices the night before, it was significantly altered by the organizational tradition of Renn Faire, it was significantly enhanced by the societal tradition of theatrical performance, and it was significantly determined by the meteorological effect of rainfall.

I cannot discount any of these factors in understanding what this experience means to me.

All together I have come to refer to this diversity of factors as context.

The realization that the context of my experience had such a profound effect on its quality leads me back to thinking about Dale and his experience of learning to bat.

The insight I had at that time was a visualization of the immensity of the contextual factors that contribute to every moment of our experience.

It is understanding the importance of context that makes this teaching idea big.

Relationships Are The Heart of My Teaching Idea

In the view of traditional educational philosophy the central teaching idea is to create a sufficient teaching performance such that the student, as audience, is moved in some particular way.

That movement was traditionally thought of as acquiring units of knowledge, skills and information as a simple replication of the teacher's performance in some specific, limited way and an accumulation of these performances results in education.

If the teacher can bat then the teacher, by some performance moves the student to acquire the ability to bat.

My vision makes a mockery of this traditional teaching idea of instructional accounting for student performance.

Having seen, with Dale, the sheer number of possible influences past and present on one straightforward physical coordination task with just a single student makes me think that the idea that you could account for a whole classroomful of students is patently absurd.

By taking my vision of this teaching idea seriously we now have to account for a potentially infinite number of factors for each individual student.

But I have also seen that being in that n-dimensional space with my student was the most natural and simple access to knowing exactly what was needed without having to account for all the details.

Seeing that there is a simple, natural access to right action completely alters the challenge of teaching.

It changes it from a nearly impossible technical delivery challenge into a relationship challenge.

The teaching idea is not about how to create a teaching performance that will invoke, inspire or otherwise cause learning to occur.

The important teaching idea is about how to relate to the student in an appropriately intimate way such that you can share in their journey of life and eventually influence their navigation and cartographic practices.

My big teaching idea is to create deeply meaningful relationships with students so that they trust and respect teachers enough so that together they can share in their journey through life.

Together they can figure out the kind of people they want to become and begin to make maps of reality that will help everyone get there, together.

The rest of this site is concerned with how to change the context of teaching by shifting education policy towards supporting schools to align the various levels of their existence for creating and maintaining well-being.

John Taylor Gatto's Big Teaching Idea from the Winter, 1999 issue of Yes! Magazine.