The one rule of teaching

by | Thursday, May 05, 2011

Pauline Kael is regarded to be one of the best film reviewers to have ever lived. Sam Sacks has a piece on Kael in which he describes her style of film review, one based less on academic nitpicking and the presence (or absence) of directorial flourishes than on her personal aesthetic response to cinema. She is quoted as saying that there is only one rule in filmmaking:

There is only one rule: Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way.

I read this quote and immediately realized that this rule applies to teaching as well. I have often described teaching as doing two things – making the strange familiar (an eclipse of the sun is caused by the moon falling into the earth’s shadow) or making the familiar strange (all matter is essentially empty space). What is common is the sense of surprise we experience in both cases.

It appears to me that very often we forget the value of astonishment and awe in teaching and learning. This is where the quote above really connects with my idea of teaching. Repeating the quote but by changing just one word—replacing “art” with “teaching.”

There is only one rule: Astonish us! In all teaching we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way.

How do we as educators meet this goal of “astonishing us all.”

A few randomly selected blog posts…

Multiple representations of the periodic table and learning

Mishra & Yadav (2006) was a paper based around my dissertation research. It took a while to get published and I am including it here for the record. My dissertation (Mishra, 1998) was maybe the first place where I made a specific mention of the triad of...

Ads in Video Games

A couple of people have emailed me about the Obama campaign inserting advertisements into video games. Check out this Flickr set with screenshots of these advertisements. Most of the press is reporting that these ads show up in just racing games but as these...

New ambigrams for a new blog!

What do you think this is? Take a guess...Well, it is the top half of a lake-reflection ambigram. What this means is that if you reflect what you see along a horizontal line at the bottom of the image, the picture you will then get will spell a word. Can you figure...

Number (non)sense & flatulence!

Numbers are a gas! (Image credit: Phillie Casablanca) Numbers are seen as being critical to developing our understanding of a subject. As Lord Kelvin, (1824-1907) said: ... when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something...


I had discovered the amazing poet Szymborska (on this very blog a while ago). And then today in my mailbox was another poem by her, sent in by a friend. We're extremely fortunate A poem by Wislawa Szymborska We're extremely fortunate not to know percisely the kind of...

Meta Poetry: I and II

Meta Poetry: I and II

This sentence refers to itself. This sentence declares that this blog post is about 2 poems I wrote recently. Both these poems are self-referential to some degree, namely both poems are about poetry. I have been interested in self-reference for along time—and this...

Representing tensions through photography

Education is always about leadership and leadership has always been about tensions—navigating through them and seeking to find the right balance between them.  Leaders often feel a tug from individuals with conflicting interests or needs, with ideas that often tug in...

Paradoxes & Ambigrams: Article 2 of 2

A few months ago I had posted about publication of the first of two articles on mathematics, visual wordplay and paradoxes. The second article (part of our series on Art and Math co-authored with my friend Gaurav Bhatnagar and published by At Right Angles) is now...

McLuhan on Silver Lining for Learning (5/3)

McLuhan on Silver Lining for Learning (5/3)

This is the fifth of what was supposed to be a three post-series about how media influence our thinking. The first post, uses the invention of writing and print to unpack the meaning of McLuhan’s statement, “The medium is the message.” The second post, focuses on a...


  1. automation courses in chennai

    We wish to thank you once more for the beautiful ideas you offered Janet when preparing her own post-graduate research and, most importantly, regarding providing many of the ideas in one blog post. If we had known of your web-site a year ago, we’d have been kept from the needless measures we were participating in. Thanks to you.

  2. Michael

    We understand the need of the hour in teaching. Astonishing is a pretty good technique. However, the persistence and prolonged maintenance of this astonish us is going to be critical issue.

  3. Alice

    yes, “Atonish us!” means we always want to listen and read about new things, and even contemplate new feelings. These are also very important in education. The world changes everyday, education should be ussually refreshed to strive to a new height.

  4. Anna Hayes

    “I read this quote and immediately realized that this rule applies to teaching as well.”

    You’re a star in teaching and education, Punya!!! You always try to get the new thing, apply new method! I admire you alot!

    Good luck to you!

  5. Jeff

    I agree! What’s amazing is that, with the practically limitless availability of fabulous resources that are available to educators now, we still find lots of classrooms with a single voice (the teacher’s) and a room full of passive, disengaged students. Most of us entered the field of education with a deep passion for our work. What happened to the passion? Are most educators burned out? What do schools need to do — and I mean everything should be on the table — to not only energize and rejuvinate teachers but to provide structures for creating engaging instruction and curriculum?


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