How to Teach Anything

An illustrated portrait of Spike Lee
Spike Lee, by Xia Gordon for The New Yorker

A couple of things have come across my inbox over the weekend that I’ve taken great inspiration from. One was an interview of Spike Lee, by the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham. I’ll pull a couple of quotes:

But, to be honest, I didn’t go to film school thinking that the professors were going to teach me how to be a filmmaker. And I say that with no disrespect. All I wanted—and Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee, who were my classmates, too—we just wanted the equipment. We wanted the equipment to make our films. We wanted to learn the basic stuff—how to read a light meter and this and that. But, as far as teach us how to make a movie, we would teach ourselves. Give us equipment.

And the summer between me graduating Morehouse and then going to N.Y.U. film school in the fall, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Columbia Pictures. First time I’d ever been in L.A. And I was at the first screening—not a première, but the first public screening—of “Apocalypse Now,” at the Cinerama Dome, on Sunset Boulevard. And every time I see Francis, I bring it up. He says, “Spike, you told me that a million times already.” But I only say that because it had a great impact on me. I remember sitting in the Cinerama Dome and—with the great sound work by Walter Murch—these helicopters flying over my head. I’m turning around, looking, like, Where the fuck is this helicopter coming from?

Spike Lee, as interviewed by Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker, March 7 2021

These two paragraphs tell you everything you’d ever need to know about great teaching. You teach students craft, not content. You give them the best tools you can find, and insist that they use them with care. You show them inspiring work. You surround them with other talented and passionate kids. And you hang out with them yourself outside class.

So as I was considering this list, as evidenced in the life and work of Spike Lee, I got this obituary of Walter Gretzky. Let me pull a couple of quotes from that as well:

The Gretzky home at 42 Viradi Ave., in Brantford, has become something of a national shrine over the years. Walter Gretzky happily welcomed strangers wishing to see the backyard where the rink known as “Wally’s Coliseum” started a 3-year-old Wayne on his way to hockey superstardom.

The family had one golden rule — “Get your homework done first” — and then everyone could play as long as they wanted, on what Wayne’s father liked to call “glass ice.”

“He would be out here hour after hour,” Walter Gretzky told The Globe and Mail in 2008, “twisting in and out between pylons we made from Javex bottles. He used to tie a can off a string and hang it in the net and see how many times he could hit it. He used to pay kids a nickel or a dime to play goalie for him.”

It was Walter who told Wayne to “skate to where the puck’s going and not to where it’s been.” The superstar son always maintained that he developed his game “right in my own backyard,” under the tutelage of his father. Walter Gretzky had been a fine young player in his own right, but at 140 pounds he was considered too small to move into Junior A hockey, then the traditional route to a professional career.

Roy MacGregor, “Hockey Legend Wayne Gretzky Shared His Father with a Nation,” New York Times, March 5, 2021

The same lessons are here, in a small-town backyard in Ontario, just as they are in film school in New York City. You teach students craft, not content. You give them the best tools you can find, and insist that they use them with care. You show them inspiring work. You surround them with other talented and passionate kids. And you hang out with them yourself outside class.

We surround so much education with infrastructure that doesn’t advance any of these five goals. That actually obliterates them. As the education writer Ivan Illich once wrote, we often think that we learned things in school, but when challenged to actually think it through, we surrender that illusion pretty quickly. His example there was learning another language. “You learn a language when you go live with your grandparents for a summer. Or when you fall in love with someone from another country.” Lessons can help us, sometimes, do something we already want to do. But they can’t help us want to do them, and that’s the core of all learning.

If you have to choose between school and learning, learning is always the answer.