Show, Don’t Tell

When instructors set up their first Yellowdig Community, they often ask: “What should I tell my students to do?” This question is motivated by legitimate concerns about one’s responsibilities as an instructor and one’s role as a discussion facilitator. But it belies two unspoken assumptions. The first is that, in a discussion between peers, students need to be told exactly what to do. The second is that telling students exactly what to do will yield the educational outcomes you want. While these premises are facially plausible, I don’t think they hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, if these premises were true, then LMS discussion boards — which leverage highly prescriptive approaches to discussions — would be all we’d need to achieve great educational outcomes in online discussions. And if we thought LMS discussion boards were sufficient, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

What’s the alternative to telling your students what to do? Show them.

"Show, Don’t Tell” is an old adage. You might catch a high school director citing it to a teenager mugging his way through the role of Romeo. In the context of theatre, the adage means, roughly, “Don’t indicate what you’re thinking and feeling. Exemplify what you’re thinking and feeling.” The difference is subtle but crucial. To indicate is to telegraph your character’s thoughts and feelings to the audience. To exemplify is to reveal what you (as your character) are thinking and feeling — to embody your character and leave it to the audience to discern your thoughts and feelings.

Photo by Gwen Ong on Unsplash

We intuitively understand that exemplification, or showing, is a more authentic means of communication than indication, or telling. Yet instructors tend not to apply the same principle to discussion management. (Full disclosure: during my years as a college instructor and discussion facilitator, I did a lot of telling and only a little showing.)

You might think there’s nothing wrong with a “tell, don’t show” approach. The sage on the stage tells, after all. Isn’t it the sage’s job to tell everyone what to do and say?

There is a place for telling in education; that much is beyond doubt. But showing plays a crucial role as well. That’s because learning isn’t just about gaining factual knowledge; it’s about developing the skills and competencies that allow one to acquire, understand, and retain factual knowledge in the first place. To borrow an example from mathematics, if you’ve memorized Cantor’s theorem but are unable to reconstruct Cantor’s proofs for it, you haven’t truly learned Cantor’s theorem. That’s because fully understanding Cantor’s theorem requires more than knowing what the theorem says; it requires having the skills necessary to prove its truth. We can better appreciate the difference between learning a fact and learning a skill by unpacking the concepts that underpin them: knowledge-that and knowledge-how.

The distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-how occupies a central place in my academic subfield. To know-that is to know a fact — to know, for example, that water is H20. To know-how is to have a certain sort of capability or competence — to know, for example, how to tie your shoes. Both knowledge-that and knowledge-how can be taught. But you don’t teach knowledge-that and knowledge-how in exactly the same way. You’d be hard-pressed to teach someone that water is H20 without telling them something. And you wouldn’t teach your child how to tie her shoes by reading aloud from an instruction manual; you’d show her how to do it.

Photo by Renate Vanaga on Unsplash

In general, knowledge-that is best transferred through telling, and knowledge-how is best transferred through showing. Conventional “sage on the stage” teaching is great for sharing knowledge-that; lectures, papers, and exams are efficient and effective means of conveying and assessing knowledge-that. But some things can’t be taught through telling; they’re taught in the doing. And therein lies the chief educational value of conversations.

You don’t need vibrant discussions to learn that water is H20. But you do need vibrant discussions to learn how to debate, how to construct a proof, how to respectfully share ideas and perspectives, and how to communicate clearly and effectively. The educational merit of discussions resides less in the knowledge-that produced and more in the knowledge-how produced.

This doesn’t mean that good discussions don’t produce knowledge-that; nor does it mean that knowledge-how and knowledge-that are totally disconnected. It simply means that the central educational purpose of discussions is to facilitate knowledge-how. After all, there are more far efficient ways to convey knowledge-that: lectures and assigned readings, for example. So if you’re still cleaving to discussions, it’s probably because you think discussions offer a different sort of educational value. It’s plausible, I think, that their value lies in knowledge-how.

How can you teach knowledge-how? Show, don’t tell. Resist the temptation to force students to respond to narrow prompts. Avoid telling them they must comment on x posts and y comments by Sunday. Allow them to hone their synthesis skills by drawing novel connections between topics over multiple weeks. And don’t punish students for asking questions, giving incorrect answers, or unwittingly drifting off-topic. To learn how to do something, you have to be free to make mistakes, commit a fallacy or two, and accept gentle correction. To sound the refrain once more: the learning is in the doing.

Instead of telling, show your students how to communicate well. Here are some things you can do to lead your community by example:

  1. Critically engage with students’ arguments. In so doing, you will teach students how to engage with each others’ arguments.

  2. Pose questions to which you don’t know the answers. In so doing, you will teach students how to admit ignorance and seek knowledge.

  3. Invite students to share resources on a topic of interest. In so doing, you will teach students how to collect, share, and critically discuss relevant materials.

  4. Collaborate with students to help solve a problem. In so doing, you will teach students how to share knowledge and skills to achieve a common goal.

  5. Exercise intellectual virtues: humility, open-mindedness, charity in interpretation, and economy in expression. In so doing, you will teach students how to be intellectually humble, open-minded, charitable, and concise.

Your students will thank you (and positively evaluate you) for transmitting know-how the best way you can: by showing your fellow Community members what good conversation looks like.

Samuel Kampa, Ph.D. is the Client Success Analyst at Yellowdig. Samuel received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University. He taught seven classes and nearly 200 undergraduate students at Fordham. He brings to Yellowdig that teaching experience, an enduring interest in improving pedagogy, and data science training that has helped expand Yellowdig’s data analysis capabilities and develop instructor training materials.

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