A great teacher finds a way to communicate

Communication is the heart of teaching.

And the heart of the communication is identifying something the learner and teacher have in common that can become the vehicle for information transfer.

Richard McKenna’s 1963 novel The Sand Pebbles contains an inspiration example of how a gifted teacher—who happens to be a navy mechanic—overcomes the barriers of language and literacy.

Jack Holman’s passion is engines.  Po-han, one of the illiterate Chinese workers hired to do the ship’s grunt work, is keen to learn how to operate and repair the massive engine.

Jack tests his skills on several engine operations.

Po-han knew what to do, but he did not know what it was that he did. He knew in a vague way that team and water moved through pumps and valves, but when he twisted a valve he did not realize that he was opening or closing it. To Po-han, all that he did was isolate little magics that moved a pressure gauge pointer or a water level back to the right place. … what his eager, wistful eyes were reaching out for, was the big magic that would make a living whole out of all the little magics.

Po-han has limited English, does not understand numeric notation.

Jack knows no Chinese.

How can can an illiterate man learn  to tend machinery when he and his teacher do not even speak the same language?

Jack acts it out.

He was live steam, coming along the line snorting and bulging his muscles, and the live steam did work in the feed pump, Holman reading in to the crosshead with both arms, grunting heavily, pretending to life the piston rod up and down as it stroked, and then the steam came out the exhaust valve wheezing, drooping, muscles slack, staggered over to the condenser and went to sleep, Holman’s folded hands beside his head.

From the pantomime, Po-han understands the steam “got tired in the pump,” but still doesn’t understand pressure.

A lesser teacher would have quit right there, but not Jack. He looks for another way to communicate the essential concepts.

First Jack acts out the process of water to steam to water.

Then he acts out pressure, physically shoving Po-han while repeating the word pressure.

Po-han gets the association of physical force with the English word.

Holman “saw the pure light of joyful learning come back into Po-han’s face. This time he really had the idea, with no dark spots in it anywhere.”

If you have some time this summer, get  a copy of The Sand Pebbles and read at least that second chapter.  Ask yourself how you would go about communicating the essential concepts of your course without the benefits of language.

How Jack’s peers react to his teaching methods is also instructive, but far less inspirational.