Every good craftsman has a toolbox – perhaps more than one. When there is a job to be done, a skilled craftsman does not assess the job primarily based on what tools can be used to get the job done. Instead, the focus is on what tools are needed in order to get the job done. Of course, every now and then, the craftsman might acquire a new and wonderful tool that he can’t wait to use. Perhaps on those joyous occasions the craftsman might slightly depart from the most efficient path in order to add and enjoy the new wrinkle. In those instances, often the goal has changed from accomplishing a task to personal enjoyment. If the craftsman is astute, he might be thinking with the long term in view – “If I learn how to incorporate this new tool now, on a project for which it is not really necessary, then when I really do need it, I will be comfortable and practiced, and will be better able to use it.” In either case, there are reasons that particular tools are used, and the skilled craftsman should be deliberate in those reasons.
Teaching is a craft, and there are tools of the teaching trade. Every teacher is well equipped with tools. But the skilled teacher is able to assess what tools are most appropriate for the occasion. Teaching is a strangely dependent craft, as there can be no effective teaching without some degree of learning actually taking place. While the learner certainly has responsibility in the process, the teacher’s focus ought to be on providing the learner with the information needed in a way that the learner can access and implement it.
Consequently, “That reminds me of a story” is one of the worst possible phrases a teacher can utter – especially if it is actually a true statement. “That reminds me of a story” implies a craftsman reaching into a toolbox to pull out a tool for no reason related to advancing the project, but only for the sake of personal enjoyment of the tool. Notice who is benefitting: the craftsman, not the project itself. In the case of illustrations being used arbitrarily, they are often employed for reasons more selfish than not.
Allow me to illustrate. Have you ever listened to someone speak, whose speech is driven by nothing but thought connections? Their monologue might go something like this:
“How are you doing today? My day isn’t going so well – my car was having problems this morning. I remember when my car had problems a year ago. That was a good year, other than the car problems. That year I bought a TV, and it was really cool – it had picture in picture so I can watch two things at once. My kid was doing two things at once just the other day, and it was really funny. He was balancing on one foot while mixing some macaroni and cheese. I really like macaroni and cheese, but it is much better with seasoning than without. Steak is also really good with seasoning. I wonder if I should take my family out to eat steak this week. One time I took my family to an amusement park and we had a really good time. But once, we didn’t have a good time when I broke my arm and had to go the hospital. That wasn’t a good time at all. Have you ever noticed that hospital food isn’t seasoned well sometimes…?”
People who speak based on thought connections are thinking more selfishly than considerately, and such conversations are generally not as edifying as they could otherwise be (to put it gently). Teaching is no different. The skilled teacher ought to be always considerate of the learner, and one of the best ways to do that is to focus on what the learner needs and provide them that in the best, most effective way possible. In short, the principle is simple: only illustrate when illustration is helpful for achieving the purpose of teaching. Don’t illustrate just because you know an illustration. Measure your words.
This means that the skilled teacher needs to have already assessed the needs of the learner before the teaching process begins, and should be deliberate in forming and implementing a plan to make that process as effective and fruitful as possible. All too often teachers will stray from their important material, in order to proceed down an irrelevant path of stories and personal experiences. Beware the unnecessary illustration, and consider three questions before using any illustration:
- Does the material demand an illustration, or would it stand better on its own?
- Does the illustration advance the teaching process, or hinder it?
- Is now the best time for an illustration (because if you use one now, the effectiveness of other illustrations will be diluted)?
If you are going to teach, then teach. Don’t just say a bunch of stuff. “The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11).
And remember – there are far better ways to teach than to simply begin with an illustration. That’s just lazy. (Ok, kidding about that last part, considering the first paragraph of this article.)