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Teaching With Your Mouth Shut

By Donald L. Finkel
Boynton/Cook
180 Pages
2000
ISBN: 0-86709-469-9 (paperback)
$22.50

Reviewed by

Jacquelyn Ann K. Kegley

Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies

CSU Bakersfield


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Teaching with Your Mouth Shut provides a fresh perspective on teaching and learning. It also deflates the supposed dichotomy between student-centered and teacher-centered learning. Building upon the insights of John Dewey that ideas are not conveyed as ideas from one person to another and that people learn best when provoked into thinking for themselves by problematic situations, Finkel defines teaching as "creating those circumstances that produce learning in others" (p. 15). As did Rousseau for Emile, good teachers provide certain circumstances and structures that allow learning and reflection upon that learning. This book explores and exemplifies carefully designed teaching situations that produce rich experiential learning experiences for students. Further, revealed in these strongly student-centered learning experiences is the equally significant presence of the teacher who provides careful planning and control of the situations and a deep understanding of what one wants students to experience. This subtle interplay of student/faculty centeredness is also beautifully illustrated in each of the chapters as Finkel highlights various ways one can give students significant experience and provoke reflection.

Chapter Three, for example, provides concrete illustration of how one can use great books to provide a powerful learning experience for students. Arguing that one must let "the book do the talking," Finkel offers a detailed account of how he used the Iliad to educate students without a "translation" by the teacher. Of course, students do not automatically learn just by reading. Rather, the teacher provides structure and activities that aid students in attending to the book, learning about its setting and language, and "actively responding to its perplexities," as well as drawing on "each other to make sense of the story" (p. 17). Finkel suggests other books and even parables as resources for provoking learning situations. Chapter Four expands on these valuable suggestions by discussing the "open-ended seminar," a "sustained means of provoking reflection on the experience of reading a book" (p. 154).

In Chapter Five, Finkel highlights the significant role of writing in learning. He sees writing both as experience and as reflection. Finkel stresses writing as an important task both for teacher and student. Finkel also describes a fruitful strategy of using lectures and essays written by teachers as texts that the students can read and re-read. Students can read these at any pace, and several students can get together to discuss the texts. Reflection upon them by students is thus much more likely to occur. In addition, Finkel provides excellent examples of the teacher as writer, writing response letters to students as well as directions for conceptual workshops. The letters in response to student essays can encourage the students to reflect on what they did in their essays, how they did it, and what they failed to do. This not only leads to reflection but to better writing in the future. Finkel also sees students as members of "writing communities" in which they write both for peers and for teachers in the interest of a common inquiry. Such a writing community broadens the audience for student writing, and student response letters become both means and ends. The letters allow students to push their own thinking and to test ideas and conclusions. The written results become public accounts for their classmates and in turn function as provocations to their thinking.

Chapter Six illustrates a provocative and fascinating structured learning experience, the conceptual workshop. The workshop is centered on a concrete, engaging, profound, and opaque problem. The teacher provides a set of instructions and a series of questions that build on the original question. In small groups the students set out to find a solution to the original problem. The teacher is available as a resource person to clarify questions and instructions and to facilitate group processes. This kind of learning experience comes to a "satisfactory" ending as groups share their conclusions, compare them, and receive input from the teacher. Finkel gives concrete instructions on setting up conceptual workshops on various topics. One such topic is discovering the rationale that Shakespeare used in shifting from Henry V to Troilus and Cressida.

The other chapters of the book explore additional aspects as well as the limits of the concept of "teaching with your mouth shut." Thus, Finkel probes deeply the notion of a truly democratic education and classroom environment and in the process provides a rich insight into subtle distinctions between a teacher's power and authority and its many possible manifestations. This leads to a very helpful chapter that reflects on teaching with a colleague. In this chapter Finkel argues for a notion called "collegial teaching." He presents five criteria for successfully establishing such a form of teaching. These are (a) the two teachers must be equal, (b) the two teachers must be different, (c) the two teachers must act before their students primarily as intellectual colleagues (and not as administrators of a course), (d) the collegially taught course must of necessity be inquiry-centered, and (d) collegial teachers must see their students as "auditors to the collegial conversation" and "participants" in this conversation (pp. 139-140). Finkel explored this type of teaching and learning experience in more depth in Educating for Freedom: The Paradox of Pedagogy (Rutgers UP, 1995) written with William Ray Arney.

This book is exciting and provocative and leads to a profound reexamination of our assumptions about teaching and learning. It is also a very pragmatic and practical guide to setting up exciting classroom situations that should lead to significant student learning. I could find no major weaknesses in this book. Rather, I highly recommend the book for reading as well as discussion by groups of teachers.

Posted July 2, 2002
Modified July 10, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Jacquelyn Ann K. Kegley.

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