Nairobi/Mazzeo: one hour of lesson, an encounter

Nairobi  2007

Rosario Mazzeo

Traduzione di Paolo Sanna




ONE HOUR OF LESSON: one hour of study, an encounter



We teach how to study, well or badly, first of all in the period of lesson.

In a bad way if it is, assignment, test, entertainment, animation. In a good way, means in a suitable and effective way, if the lesson is an encounter (in its true meaning).

The lesson-encounter is an involving gesture. Its deadly enemies are “habit, indifference, and proud presumption” and self-conceit (Guardini, 1987), which in teaching takes the form of a rigid programming, the lack of intrinsic motivations, and the form of ‘I-am’ being identified with “I-work”. Its friends, instead, are simplicity, gratuitousness, entire and passionate observation, cordiality, the willing to “domesticate and let oneself be domesticated” (see the little Prince of Saint Exupéry), and the freedom.

If there is freedom, there is work. The lesson becomes an hour of learning, conquest of knowledge, perfection (beginning and /or progress, achievement) of the study as an encounter with reality.

Generally, in my experience such a lesson is accomplished under some conditions that now I try to present here.


1-A vital space


A class, which moves as a company guided in a cultural work, is a space of effective learning. It is opposed to class as a group of people characterized by apathy, fiction and mechanical reactivity, or by expressive and playful exuberance.

The class-companionship is where one can discover a sharing of humanity and interdependency while performing activities, so it is easy to respect and to employ to advantage the differences, to develop creative and expressive abilities, to live study as “dialogue” with the mates, with the books and with oneself. It is an environment where one passes from “a system of indifference” to “the movement of compromises”; from the enclosure of individualism to the space of the emotion and social involvement” (Mollo, 1991), from moments of intensive work to adequate pauses.


 The teacher is the first called on to “compromise”. The neutral teacher by definition cannot interest: does not touch and does not provoke questions (Rigotti, 1991). And if he doesn’t touch and doesn’t provoke questions, he doesn’t favour attention and doesn’t make students learn. There is in fact learning if the reality encountered or the task assigned has an impact on the “I” of the one who is learning. If a change occurs, a modification of the meaning that man gives to his own experience (Novak, 1989).

A teacher who has a positive hypothesis, something new and provoking, creates a change, as someone in front of whom one must take a position, must choose, and must decide.

So as opposed to the image of the neutral teacher, we put the image of the “magisterial” teacher available and able to capture the students’ exigencies (needs) and “to intervene with personal actions”. That is the teacher during whose hours of lessons each student and the entire class are continuously provoked to action.


2-The Roll call


 Any authentic teaching always starts with a call to presence, with an invitation to openness.

 Naturally, I am not speaking of the bureaucratic act, which precedes the lesson. I think, instead, of the choices of the teacher to present himself and to present the discipline in such way that awakens the “presence” of the class and of each student.

A choice can consist of starting the lesson with a laying out the motives and steps of the work to be done. You could for instance, start with a moment of silence both individual and collective, lasting 2-3 minutes, whose content may concern an answer to the questions: what are we going to do today? Why? How? ”

It consists of foreseeing, imagining and giving value to activities and contents of the hour of lesson on basis of past experience and the expectations of the class, of each student and the teacher. The experience tells me that such moment of “prefigurating” silence marks a separation line between the first hour and another, which produces benefits for the attention and the memory. Generally it concludes with a common plan of organisation of time and activities: each student is invited to the blackboard in turn; he is asked to write the plan and the intentions of the day in a scheme form, the agenda is widened, a brief discussion is done and first issue is tackled.

During the lesson, the teacher will continue to provoke until when the class and the student concretely say: “Yes, I am present!” and have the courage to say “I” in what is happening in class. In other words he will try untiringly to involve the students at an affective and an intellectual level.


3- The gaze on the students


The first way of involvement is in the gaze the teacher has on students. How does he consider them? Interlocutors, co- operators, containers to fill, nuisances (tire-some people), more or less applauding spectators, “small animals” to tame? Before starting an activity or a learning sequence, does he tend to ensure that students think and feel themselves involved? Or just going on with his program making sure that nobody will disturb him on his way?

If the lesson is an encounter, a communication among people, an activity of learning performed together it is more probable that students will feel involved in an event and therefore will keep attention and learn easily.

If the gaze of the teacher “embrace” the students as real interlocutors, it is easier to individuate and to apply strategies of attention: “to warm up the audience”, to take by surprise, to ask questions, to request interventions, to keep the moral high, to invite to a co- responsibility and co- management of times, aims, ways and means of the lesson. The expression “to warm up” the audience to be ready to listen to you is Brown’s. “If you face at once an issue, suddenly without warm-up, the public may not be ready to welcome it totally”. For this reason, this American scholar suggests “informal exchange of jokes” and, “little stories” in such way that people get used of your voice, of your accent, and your rhythm (Brown, 1990.  p.237)

Yet in class after many hours of lessons, the scarce knowledge among interlocutors is not the obstacle. To warm up listeners means then to make you one with the people present. An effective didactic way with regard to this is to share with students, in the context of authentic transparency, the goals to reach. It consists of not “starting at cold” dragging the students towards goals we alone know and imagine to be appealing.


The next step is to individuate a point of departure or a hook in the memory of students. It is completely erroneous to consider the brain of students as a container. It is instead similar to a system of hooks fixed on smooth wall: the more hooks there are the easier the climber can grasp and fix new ones. (Leiner, 1976).

These hooks are defined as foreknowledge. To excite the listeners is to offer links between “old information” and new ones in dynamic and lively way, to put again into motion the knowledge of our students provoking to change, true essence of learning. The ways to activate such movement are surprise and question.





3.1 -To surprise and to be surprised


Surprise enlightens the intention and activates process of attention and the memory. ”A student who is surprised becomes personally involved in learning and therefore can associate a personal memory with the memory of topic. A particular word has been coined (forged) for such memories, “lamp memories (bulb)”. They happen when an event carries a high level of surprise, a high level of importance and emotional awakening” (Gibson, 1986, p.174)

Our student get surprised when they realize that there is “something new, yet ancient” in what we say or we do in class. New in as much as the topic was never noticed before, ancient because it is discovered that between what we say and we know there is a link, a correspondence, a hook.

There is surprise too because the teacher knows how to take by surprise visualizing and organizing the lesson content in an original way, which means in a way that his I and his impact on the topic appears on the explanation.

There is a wonder because the teacher himself is full of wonder for what happens in class, for the question of being by his own students, for the new angle of vision of the topic, for the new correspondence and the unexpected answers to the exigencies of knowledge for a renewed will to live and to work.

One can take the students by surprise also on a sudden interruption of the speech, with a varied voice tune and its intensity, with movements and unforeseen gestures. But these activities are fireworks; if the teacher has not the habit to surprise himself continuously as the child, whom Einstein speaks of, always full of wonder and curiosity. 


3.2 -To question and to let one be questioned


The involvement is much easier if the teacher asks questions, provokes feedback for him and for the students and shows enthusiasm for the topic. It is to make an hour of lesson become an hour of questioning exercise, therefore, of use of reason.

There are different ways that change according to the teacher’s “geniality”, the educative relationship reliability, the reciprocal compromise or solidarity and the class composition. Yet, it is always possible to start, to conduct, to evaluate the lesson by questioning and provoking the students to ask questions to the subject, classmates, oneself and the whole reality. In the experience I see lessons born as answers to question arising from an explorative reading of the text, from a brief general presentation of the topic by the teacher, from knowledge and problems of the students on the topic, from facts which happen previously, from assignment elaborated at home and from mistakes made. I notice also lessons come from answers and some ways of answering, when the teacher criticises the answer given or putting the question in other way or suggests hypothesis of solutions to the problems. Questions are not always pertinent nor are they always clear in their structure of what is given (topic, dimension) and what is asked (direction of the question), nor are they intentioned to welcome the answer, because they are precipitous, they are not meditated, they have narcissistic characters, but they are always valuable and therefore can be proposed again. So we try to educate on listening to the question, to express them again, to take note, to classify and to put in order on the blackboard the questions showing the connection they have to each other, indicating ways to answer and to rediscover further questions.


4- Pauses, the rhythm


I recalled the function of preparatory silence, but the lesson need moments of stases and therefore, of silence during and at the end of its development.

Pauses in a lesson, as a moment of a company guided to reach objectives of a meaningful, critical and autonomous learning; they are needed by the psychophysical structure of a person and by the very laws of attention and memory.

In class we are dealing with human being neither with puppets nor with more or less sophisticated machines. They are human beings who consume physical, affective and intellectual energy. The pause is an important moment to recuperate this energy. It is not a waste of time then, but a new push for a further step, a helping hand to bring back attention and memory reinforcement because distributed learning is more advantageous than the concentrated one.

The necessity of the pause is so evident that, when we do not give it, students singularly, in-group or collectively, take spaces in which to refuge, to isolate themselves, far away from the teacher’s “pressure”.

Then it is worth fixing and living together very brief moments of suspension of the work during which the students’ body and mind are oriented towards other thing than the object and the activity of the lesson. Standing up, close the eyes, making relaxation exercise, open the window, telling a joke, keeping quite, chatting for a couple of minute all these are pauses which give rhythm and tune to the learning work in class.


 Is not there the risk that the students be distracted?


There is the risk. It must be controlled keeping in mind that the pause should last for few minutes, and should not be dictated by unforeseen and misleading will, but by the desire to reach in the most effective, advantageous, and “beautiful way possible, the objective. In other words, Pauses, during the lesson should be a function of the learning.


5- Assignment and homework


The lesson is effective (immediate study moment, normal form of teaching study method) if it assigns work to the student: if he finds in what happen in class, the origin, the direction, the aim of his task of learning (oral, written, practical). It is simply not an afterwards assignment. What is not assumed to be work in class, hardly becomes such later. To take an example, let us see what happen when the hour of a lesson becomes consign-assumption of seeds of learning and knowledge (lesson seminar).

The teacher in the first two phases of the learning work (preparation, project) accompanies, sustains, orientates the student towards the understanding of its nature, the prevision of its feasibility, the individuation of an action plan, the knowledge of the resources and available and necessary instruments, the internal and external conditions for the best development and the best organisation of the study environment.

 During the course phase, the teacher could intervene to make control the possible drop of attention, the progress made, the objectives to reach, time and effort in reaching the objectives, the self reinforcement, uncertainty and failure, without immediately turning to external help or renouncing to arrive at the goal.

At the concluding phase or self-valuation, he should guide the student and the class to take back the main steps.




6- A lesson that does not end


  Usually the lesson ends with the sound of the bell and with a precipitous assigning of homework. In order not to spoil the last moments it is good to plan the conclusion five or ten minutes before. This will be the time for the synthesis of the essential concepts, the resumption of the meaningful sentences, to indicate ways to a personal re-elaboration (comparison of knowledge, development of exercises, etc), to stimulate the discovery of the ways of carrying out the learning task, and to suggest lines and criterion to carry on with the learning autonomously. It will be the time to evaluate the work (what have we learnt? was it worth to have a lesson? why?). One could conclude, also, by writing notes on the register book about the activities and topic developed and, maybe, inviting someone to prepare for the following day, the minutes of the ended lesson.

In this way every lesson is easier to be lived with attention and we realize that we are participating at a “beautiful story, that of our own learning, that of the common introduction to the reality.

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