Nothing I Say is All That Important

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By Michael Hunter Schwartz from Washburn University School of Law

While conducting a teaching workshop recently, my co-presenter responded to my breathless suggestion that we needed to make a particular point after the break by saying, “Nothing we say is all that important.” His point, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is much more complex, insightful, and empathic than it appears at first glance. (In the moment, what I most recall is feeling annoyed at my co-presenter, especially because he was right.)

The first lesson of this insight for me is that students (or those who attend a teaching workshop) are very unlikely to remember, much less implement, something we merely say during a class session. We know that only a small percentage of the population is likely even to remember anything they merely hear. Law professors often complain, as they read their students’ exam answers, “But I told them _________.” Telling is seldom teaching. If we want our students to remember something, we need to do something that will cause them to remember it. Cognitivists argue that students remember what they actively process; constructivists argue that students remember what they figure out for themselves based on authentic learning activities we create. I don’t care which school of thought is right; I just need to know that telling is not teaching.

The second lesson for me is that no one piece of knowledge is all that significant. While I believe that knowledge is important, even critical, no one byte of knowledge matters all that much, and the most important learning outcomes are values and skills because those gifts last for life.

The final lesson is that, even if I do everything according to the teaching methods ideal, my students still may not learn everything that I wish them to learn. Dr. Benjamin Bloom’smastery learning model is premised on the idea that teaching succeeds if 80% of the learners learn 80% of what the teacher was trying to teach.

My hope is that, when my co-presenter reads this idea, he feels pretty good about his success with one learner. Me.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning