Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Teaching and Learning is Like a Kaleidoscope

I sat in a class the other day and the teacher posed a question which invited not only responses but perhaps a personal story to illustrate the response. It was a good question and a response came quickly, coupled with a personal story to strengthen it. That was great. Then another similar story came from a different student, followed by yet another of the same kind from someone else and I soon felt like I had reached the saturation point of the same stories. Nothing different was happening in class, just story on top of story, each saying essentially the same thing.

Far too often class discussions become a recitation of the familiar. That's fine and it is certainly not offensive but the longer we stay on only the familiar, the less chance there is of learning anything. You may notice that I did not say "learning anything new." I don't put much stock in learning new things. I am much more excited about seeing old and familiar things in a new way. An effective teacher finds ways to teach well known things with just enough of a twist that it will appear new and thus we will learn. When you see the light come on in a student's countenance then you know you have helped her see things differently.

The kaleidoscope appears to be a simple child's toy, but think of what it is: it is a tube with a chamber into which is placed some colored stones or bits of glass. Also in the chamber are some mirrors to cause reflection. As the light enters the chamber it reflects on the bits of glass or stones to create a pattern with the help of the mirrors. Then, as the tube is turned, even ever so slightly, the stones move and the pattern changes. The light is the same. The stones are the same, and the mirrors are the same. The only difference is the turning, the slight rearranging of the stones. Infinite patterns can come from the same materials if they are turned slightly. That becomes the job of an effective teacher - to turn the cylinder just enough to help us see the same things in a different light, thus adding to our knowledge and wonder.

Here is an example. For years I have used a standard definition of righteousness as I've taught: righteousness is being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing the right things. I think it is a good working definition and it is easy to understand. We can get a visual of righteousness just from that sentence. It is not a full definition but it is very useful. Now, would you see it differently if I added Isaiah's metaphor found in Isaiah 48:18 - "...then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea." Isaiah has just turned the kaleidoscope enough that it causes us to see in a new way. How is righteousness like an ocean wave? That is not any of those four things I use in my definition. Is it because righteousness can be constant? Because it can rise up to a large size? Because it is powerful? We can play with those thoughts for awhile and learn something new. For that matter we can play with "peace as a river" too and gain some new insights.

If you went home from a class where those things had been discussed and someone asked what you studied that day and you answered 'righteousness', the inquirer might immediately think they knew what the class was all about, but they would be wrong. You would have personally received some great new insights because your teacher had taken the time to twist the kaleidoscope of learning just enough that you were able to see the same things in a new way. That causes learning. Talking about the same familiar things over and over is review and there is a place for it. But to learn and add to our knowledge we need to blaze new trails of thought. Seeing things differently helps do that.


  1. Wow! A kaleidoscope? How do you come up with these things? What a great imagery of learning. Thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.