Table of Contents
1. What BB&S Stands For
2. How Artists Get Great
3. Imitating Dan
4. Good vs. Great
5. Call For Comments
1. What "Beg, Borrow, and Steal" Stands For
"Beg, borrow, and steal."
This is how you're supposed to get good at teaching. Especially during your first few years.
Implicit in this advice is that the difference between a lousy teacher and a good one is the stuff that she has at her disposal. It's curricular resources that you're supposed to beg, borrow and steal.
How do teachers get better? If you believe in "Beg, borrow, and steal" then your answer is that when a teacher starts out, she has very few good lessons at her disposal. With time, she accumulates good material. Some of it she creates, but much of it she takes from colleagues or books.*
* It's not hard to imagine a day when she finds herself completely satisfied by her collection of curricular resources. Then it's just a matter of plucking lessons out of her binder for the kids.
This belief is widely held.
2. How Artists Get Great
I've been reading "The Great Jazz Pianists," a book of interviews with (you guessed it) great jazz pianists. There's a line that keeps popping up when these musicians talk about how they got good:
"You have to have a model to play from and start by imitating." - John Lewis
"The pianist has to be a careful artist. It's like a painter trying to duplicate the work of an old master. He must get every detail and every fine line. Of course, a true artist wouldn't want to duplicate someone else's work, but he would be capable of it." - Sun Ra
"In your formative years the influences you're absorbing possess you." - Horace SilverThese musicians recommend learning by imitation. As Sun Ra mentions, this is similar to the process that the old masters used to train new painters. It's also similar to the way that some fiction writers describe their formative years.
George Saunders wrote the book that the New York Times called "the best book that you'll read this year." By his own telling, imitation played a crucial role in his development as a writer:
“If I got tired of [Hemingway], I did a Carver imitation, then a Babel imitation. Sometimes I did Babel, if Babel lived in Texas. Sometimes I did Carver, if Carver had worked (as I had) in the oil fields of Sumatra. Sometimes I did Hemingway, if Hemingway had lived in Syracuse, which, to me, sounded like Carver.”Across several creative fields, imitation is mentioned as a crucial stage in the development of an expert.
Imitation is different than appropriating or remixing the material of others. If piano players believed in "Beg, borrow and steal" they'd be taking the piano lines of others and memorizing them, incorporating them wholesale into their solos. But they weren't doing that. Instead, the great jazz pianists intensively studied the works of their elders and attempted to imitate them.* As a result, their styles inevitably resembled their master's, until eventually they found their own voices.
If George Saunders "beg, borrowed, and stole," then he'd be using the plots of the great writers, using their phrases and sentences for his own purposes. He didn't do that. Instead, he used imitation as a way to attempt to create stories that he'd love as much as those he'd read.
People don't get better at creative activities by stealing. They get great through imitation.**
* Well, sort of. To be clear, what they were often doing was attempting to play the original work note-for-note, and then later imitating their style.
** Just a quick, very parenthetical, note: there are two ways to talk about your career. You can talk about "being great" or about "making great things." I prefer the latter, and I think that the former is often unhelpful and sort of creepy. But I fall into that language because it's more concise, and I'm sometimes stuck in the "be great" model. On reflection, though, I prefer "make great" to "be great."
3. Imitating Dan
A few months ago, Andrew Stadel posted a snapshot of an exchange rate board and asked if anyone could design a lesson around it. I decided to give it a go.
I started thinking about what I could do with this picture. Since it was an digital, "real-world" picture, I thought of Dan Meyer, and then my mind went to my favorite post of his, "How Do You Turn Something Interesting Into Something Challenging?" I asked myself how Dan pulled that lesson off, and I thought if I could fit this picture into that paradigm. I decided that I could. (E.g. Take different piles of currency and offer them to kids, and ask them to rank them. Then give exchange rates.)
As I was working through Andrew's question, I realized that a lot of my pedagogical knowledge takes the form of lesson exemplars that I hold in my mind. When I face a curricular problem, my first thought is whether I can fit my problem into an of these exemplar approaches.* This is imitation.
* Here's a short list of my exemplars: Dan's liquids, Christopher's hexagons, Paul's exponents, Kate's logarithms and Fawn's slope. More generally, MARS developing metrics lessons. There are more, for sure.
Imitation has been an important part of my development of a teacher so far. My teaching knowledge is structured around certain major landmarks which I use to situate myself in the landscape of teaching. They ground me.
4. Good vs. Great
I may have overstated things, and I'd appreciate pushback in the comments if you think that I did. "Beg, borrow, and steal" is too prominent an adage to be totally false. Of course, everybody needs resources for teaching, and I know that collecting resources can help your teaching get good.
But can you become great through "beg, borrow, and steal"? I'd say that you can't, because becoming great involves finding your own voice as a teacher.*
* Some of you might say: "You can be great at teaching without having your own voice or lesson-style," and I think that we should have a good discussion about this in the comments. I'd say that teaching involves context-specific problems, and you can only solve these problems that are particular to your context with original solutions. Finding original solutions is a creative act, and is impossible without an independent, and ultimately original, style. I also think that original creation is a far more efficient way to solve problems than to seek out resources. Disagreement in the comments, please.
The fundamental issue with "beg, borrow, and steal" is that it emphasizes resources instead of personal development. But resource accumulation has a very low ceiling, compared to personal development, when it comes to improving as a teacher. To illustrate this, consider a story from comedian Patton Oswalt about an up-and-comer who stole jokes. He writes:
Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly.Maybe "beg, borrow and steal" can help get you through your first year, but will it help you keep growing (and stay interested?) past your fourth?*
* I sometimes wonder whether my general tendency to create my own materials, rather than steal others stuff, was responsible for my particularly rocky first year.
That's my case: "Beg, borrow, and steal" is fine advice, but it's got a very low ceiling. I don't know how low, but judging from the model of other creative professions, it's no way to get great. If you're interested in reaching the point where teaching is a creative endeavor -- e.g. you're coming up with ideas that are original, and that other teachers might care about -- then I think imitation is a far more reliable model for growth. Personally, I've found imitation particularly helpful, and for me it takes the form of approaching lessons with certain exemplars in mind.
Out with stealing, and on with imitation!
5. Call for Comments
Here are some disagreements that I can anticipate, and while I'd appreciate comments of any kind, I'd especially appreciate comments if you disagree with any of the following:
- Great teachers are always creative, especially when it comes to lesson-planning
- "Beg, borrow and steal" isn't good advice, even if it helps in those first few months, because it instills a false model of teacher growth.
- Artists tend to go through a long(?) period of imitation on their way to creating great things.
As always: thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.