Why Don't They Take Notes?


Walter L. Bateman
Chapter 1 of Open To Question: The Art of Teaching and Learning by Inquiry, pp. 3-14. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1990.


3 Oct 88

Dear Jack,

Your history class was a delight. You lectured and handled questions superbly, far better than I recall doing it when I first taught in college after the war.

Your students certainly respect you. And you respect yourself for being well prepared, and that confidence sure does shine through. However, I'll just bet that the first time you were as clammy-fingered as I was when I began teaching in a college jammed with veterans on the GI Bill. Four years in the infantry left me feeling that I had forgotten all the books. Every night I boned up.

Boning up. I must have taken full notes on at least two books every week for that first year.

I kept a journal trying to learn how to teach. Finally, I came up with four qualities of a good teacher. Confidence was first. If I did not know something, I found out. But en route, I discovered that when someone threw me a difficult question, it was no sin to admit that I didn't know. The sin came in the next class when I still didn't know. After I had researched some question, I always answered that student in the next class and practically made him take notes on my answer and my source.

Slowly I learned a better way.

Student asks question. Teacher grins. "I'm not sure, but I'll tell you on Friday. I'll give you a nickel if you find out before I do."

The very first time I tried that, the student accepted my challenge. She came back to class and read off her notes. Then I read off mine. Our different sources largely agreed. I searched for a nickel, marched back to her desk, and presented it with a grand flourish. The class applauded. She got red, happy red.

From then on, it was much easier for me to admit ignorance. Whenever a student failed to search, everyone groaned.

Now my roundabout reason for recalling this story is that you fielded three questions and you answered two of them very directly. The third was "Why does our history text say that General Potemkin was only a mediocre general?"

I noticed that you hesitated and then launched into slightly bawdy stories of Potemkin as lover of Catherine the Great, and then told a humorous yarn about Potemkin villages, and by then the period was up. Exit laughing

May I recommend the nickel technique? Even when you do know the answer, it won't hurt once in a while to say that you're not sure. The kids will love you.

In addition to confidence, you also have another key ingredient. You have enthusiasm. You love what you teach. It is a delight to listen to you, because what shines through is that you really want us to know as much history as you do.

Wonderful. A teacher should feel that his subject is the most important and exciting field of knowledge in the world.

A bored and listless teacher does unbelievable damage to students. Better to quit. You teach your attitude.

In your office, I noticed many books other than free textbooks. You buy books, and that too is a measure of enthusiasm: the amount of your own money you spend on your books and your journals.

Confidence and enthusiasm are essential.

That was great to see you in action. Thanks once more. I hope to visit again in about four weeks.

Your admiring uncle,



October 17, 1988

Dear Walter,

Thanks for that long and fascinating letter; I'm glad that you enjoyed my class.

But with your assumptions regarding my memory of General Potemkin's military accomplishments and the reason for the somewhat slighting reference to him in the text I really must disagree. That he had bungled badly in one particular military operation of 1787 against the Turks, failing to reinforce his troops and failing to provide sufficient supplies, I knew very well. Had he not been a favorite of the empress or had there been more adequate officers available, either one of these should have been sufficient cause to replace him. This lack marked the czarist army of the period in many ways, making it comparable to later Russian armies, most of which have been poorly led and miserably equipped, with the untrained peasants bearing the brunt of dying of their untreated wounds while their high officers lived regally like Sultans.

No, the real reason was that the clock showed three minutes left; my material on the military campaign fitted far better in the subsequent lecture, when I gave General Potemkin the treatment he deserved.

However, your suggestion of my pretending ignorance in order to persuade some totally untrained novice to delve into books that she could barely read and could scarcely comprehend smacks of a dereliction of the duties of a teacher. All things in good time; one must learn to walk before one learns to run. More than that, to pretend ignorance in order to lure a student to visit the library I find personally distasteful. What are they doing in college? Why are their parents paying these enormous amounts of money? My mission is to teach history, not to coddle. The library stands open, waiting, filled with marvels; failing to use it becomes their dereliction.

Your letter promised to elucidate four major characteristics of the competent teacher; you delivered on only a moiety of the promise; I trust that you will not fail to clarify the remaining two.

Your presence was welcome; your next visit is awaited, perhaps I could lure you into giving a lecture on a topic germane to the period we are studying. Should this appeal to you, you might schedule your visit to coincide with one of your favorite topics listed in my class schedule of lectures, which I am enclosing.




30 Oct 88

Dear Jack.

Back home safely, but my knees still feel squeezed from those tight rows on the plane.

That second visit was as entertaining as the first. I envy you. You organize a magnificent lecture, complete with humor that is appropriate and advances your argument, not the silly joke telling with which some people fill up time. I'm sorry we could not talk long afterward, but plane schedules are demanding, and you had that next class.

However and but. Since I seem to be playing the role of critic, I might as well tell you what your visiting spy saw from the back row where I perched myself.

Here's my tally of those that I could see who had also chosen seats way back.

Studying French: 3 women
Writing letters: 2 women, 1 man
Studying other textbooks: 6 men, 1 woman
Writing a list (groceries?): 1 woman

Of the 15 others I could see, all listened, but only 3 took notes. And you probably have as high a percentage as anyone. Those who sit up front are the eager ones, and they take notes, sometimes even good notes.

I wrestled with note-taking forty years ago. I tried threats. I tried checking their notes. Finally I asked them directly. My students told me that there was no point to taking notes because my tests covered the textbook only, never the lectures.

So I widened my tests to include the lectures. That helped a little. Then I changed my lectures.

Instead of supplementing the text, I argued with it. A textbook writer has to choose which interpretation he is going to use and often picks the bland one. Bland poses least risk of upsetting some parent. I remember that we were in a class on U.S. history just after the Revolution, getting into the Constitution.

For years my students had read patriotic puffery about the brilliance of the founding fathers. True, they were brilliant and farsighted. But when you read their biographies, you notice that they were also men with feelings of greed and lust and pride. They each wanted to defend their own turf; nobody wanted to give power to the other guy. The true brilliance came in the compromises they worked out; what we call democracy rose partially from the compromises.

I lectured from Charles Beard. I gave them an idea of who those guys were in terms of land holdings and wealth and slaves. I gave them a picture of bright men arguing for their own welfare, compromising a bit, and thus developing a system with checks and balances wherein the other men from other states could not readily gang up on them. But they all agreed to keep the power to themselves; the working class and all the women were cut out of the power system almost as much as the slaves.

Suddenly my class was arguing with me. It unsettled them to think of great men as being like other men. It unsettled them to think that persuasions of power and greed such as we have today would have operated back in that paradise of 1787. The argument stirred the class. They paid attention. They took notes. They were disturbed. Even the back row came alive, partly.

To get them to review for the exam, I used to give ten essay questions in advance, then pick out three of them on exam day. One was to compare that lecture with the text and then to justify a conclusion. They wanted to talk about that question. We had a magnificent discussion, with students on both sides. Even the back row began copying notes from the front row.

I had learned one big lesson. If you give students conflicting interpretations, they get to use their big, bright brains. They are smarter than we think. But we seldom encourage them to do anything but memorize.

Then I had to learn another lesson even harder. But enough for now, I'll explain it later.

Sorry I misjudged your total recall on Potemkin. But the nickel idea is still a good one.

With nostalgia,



Armistice Day 88

Dear Walter,

Thank you for the report on those who pay attention in class and those who are serious enough to take notes. Of course, I can't see what they are doing; but the response to a bit of humor is either absent from the back benches or seems forced and late. We are all aware that many students bring their bodies into class, but not always their minds; all sorts of pressures occupy them, from sports to money problems to love affairs to sick children. Our faculty's usual response is that students pay the tuition and they can choose to leave the product behind after they have paid; a free country permits choices in many areas, even self-damaging choices.

Your proposal of presenting a conflicting point of view interests me; in any period of history, a varying interpretation would be easy to find. Ever since receiving your letter, I've been thinking up ways to challenge the class; however, one insurmountable problem prevents me: Most of them do not read assignments regularly. They postpone study and then cram for a test; consequently, should I subtly contradict a chapter that most of them have not yet read, my effort would fail. Only a few would perceive what had happened. Of those, most would hesitate to raise the issue; instead, they would passively take notes.

Well, sir, you did deliver on your third point: the use of conflict to stimulate interest. However, I still await the fourth quality of a good teacher as you saw it.




27 November 88

Dear Jack,

Did I really write that I had four qualities of a good teacher? Some years there were six or sixteen. But I kept combining until the number was smaller.

My point number three was not clearly stated. What I should have written was to have faith in the student's ability to think. When we teachers met over coffee, we would often trade yarns about stupid remarks and stupid papers and preen ourselves because we knew more than freshmen. So let me state it clearly. The teacher must have confidence and enthusiasm and faith in students' brains. Whether you use conflict or challenge or puzzles or problems is a matter of technique.

The fourth point was that lesson I learned when I did manage to get students arguing and discussing. I had to learn to slow down the lecturing and to play a different role. I had to develop new skills of encouraging opinions, and encouraging the testing of ideas against documents, and encouraging the shy ones to speak up, of countering the loudmouths with the factual opinion of another student.

After years of practice in delivering some pretty slick lectures, I had to learn to shut up, to encourage alternate opinions, to get them to decide which answer better fit the facts, to keep them on track but not to tell them which I thought had the better answer.

Darned few of them had ever had the opportunity before. School was the place where you went to hear the truth. And when I slowly and grudgingly realized that they would learn better if I stepped back, they blossomed.

Well, some did. They had much to learn as well. They had to learn to discuss and to propose an answer that might seem silly and to make a judgment about another student's answer. Their world of school slowly turned upside down. Instead of being given a lot of Truth to memorize, they were faced with choices and decisions and defensive arguments. Maybe the old world of school had been upside down and we were turning it the right way up.

I like to think that. The learning came not just in memorizing facts, but in mastering the skills of thinking as well as critical attitudes. Such skills would last them a lot longer. My fourth quality for the good teacher was to learn the skills needed to get students to think critically.

The teacher should stay out of the discussion. Stand back. Shut up on the lecture. Encourage students to speak. Be a cheerleader, not a judge. And that lesson was much harder for me to learn, because it went against the grain of all my practice; for years I had studied and organized clever and brilliant lectures, and now much of my class time was being "wasted" on student talk, with often endless arguments over the same point by stubborn adherents.

Someplace in there I caught on that "wasting time" was the error in my thinking. The students were spending time in a training ground by handling evidence and handling logic and handling persuasion and thus learning how history gets written. No waste there. By giving them a choice of interpretation, I was learning to do inductive teaching, or teaching by inquiry.

And another thing happened. Of course, developing wholly new lectures takes time, so obviously I still used mostly old ones that were pretty good. But once those kids had tasted blood, they liked the taste. My next lecture was bland stuff, nothing exciting. They didn't believe it. They argued with it. Two of them went to the library and found cases to question my stand. They had become the challengers.

Never did I dare tell them that my lecture was intended to be the Truth and not to be challenged.

Well, Jack, I finally delivered on the four points and may have irritated you in the delivery. Please test these out and argue with me just as I urged my students to argue.



P.S. You got me started. I'm actually trying to write down some of the teaching techniques that worked. I shall send some along, and you can have fun tearing them apart. And if they make sense, maybe I can publish something on the method called discovery teaching or inductive teaching or teaching by inquiry.


December 15, 1988

Dear Walter,

Thank you for that long letter, which puts to shame this brief reply; but everything comes in a rush this week just before Christmas. Much as I enjoy your stories, I feel that different techniques of teaching work for different teachers. You surely have tried many.

Why call it inductive teaching, when Sherlock Holmes used deductive logic with such great effect? What is the difference, and why should one be preferred? Never have I heard of lectures as deductive teaching.

Writing down your experiences is a superb idea, and should you really want a friendly critic who is not afraid to criticize or disagree, please send me some chapters. I promise to criticize tactfully and cheerfully.

Hastily and Merry Christmas,



Happy New Year
4 Jan 89

Dear Jack,

I'm having a ball in looking through old notebooks and old textbooks and trying to organize. Just a couple of hasty answers.

Inductive means you start with data and draw a generalization that explains and gives meaning to your data.

Deductive means that you take that generalization and apply it to new stuff.

Sherlock once studied dozens of kinds of tobacco ash and drew some generalizations: inductive thinking. But when he was on a case and found some ash, he applied his general rules to the specific case: deductive thinking. He used both types; inductive must come first.

What you do when you lecture is better called exposition.

To get my students to study each day instead of cramming, I used to give short pop quizzes, usually objective and corrected immediately in class. If I had time, I gave them a brief essay. The unannounced quiz definitely keeps students studying each day; that way, you can plan your lecture to conflict with the text knowing that most of them will come prepared. And that way you can get them thinking, using those big brains.

I hope to send a few chapters soon. I'm having fun. Carry on.


Reprinted with permission from Walter L. Bateman; Open to Question: The Art of Teaching and Learning by Inquiry. Copyright © 1990 Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers or 800-956-7739.

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