“Excuse me, is what you are saying right now important for us to know?”

You’ve launched into an explanation of a difficult concept, using a story or example that will illustrate it nicely. The story isn’t in the reading. It deviates from the perceived script.

Then a student raises her hand while you are reaching the climax of the story, interrupting the flow, and asks, “Do we need to know this for the exam?”

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What do you say?

What is the value of the stories and examples that pepper your explanations of concepts, that liven (at least in your opinion) the vocabulary and meat of a subject matter?

What about a class discussion or activity? Do they need to “know” that?

You might say, “Well, not the particulars, but the way in which the story informs or interprets or applies the concept is important. You might encounter a scenario or story on the exam that will illuminate your ability to apply the concept or to understand the concept.” Will the student that asked the question understand your answer?

How do you help your students understand what they ought to be learning or understanding?

This is the crux of things for us as teachers. Learning isn’t automatic, like a sponge soaking up water. Learning requires that we first give the material salience: we need to feel its relevant or important to know. Then, we need to decide how we need to know the material. The how is the difficult part. Knowing something as a fact is different from knowing something as a scaffold or as a way of working with other material. For example, learning the name of a species is different from learning how that organism fits into its ecosystem. Or, the name of an enzyme, versus how it operates in a metabolic cycle.

I frequently will say things like, “You don’t need to know the chemical structures of this particular reaction, but you do need to understand the importance of the reaction to the cycle.” Do any of my students understand the distinction? Is it possible to really understand the importance of a chemical reaction without knowing the specific structures?

In actuality, I don’t think it’s possible. I do think the devil is in the details. For my own understanding of concepts in order to teach them, I learn the details. I find examples, develop stories. But I already have a scaffold, from years of learning and applying concepts, on which to hang the details. What about our students? They are just developing a scaffold. Do details get in the way? I think we as teachers need to help our students distinguish the scaffold-building from the details, and to help them learn how to place details within their growing scaffolds.

Since the best way to really learn and understand something is to teach it, maybe we should be asking our students to care about the details, the examples, the stories.

So, yes. To answer the question. What I am saying at this moment is important for you to know.