Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote
“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub,
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel,
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room,
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.”
Consider Lao Tzu's lesson in your classroom and in your instruction. The usefulness might be found in what you take away or what you leave out of your instruction. Like a diamond, great instruction requires that we strip away some things to make the whole brilliant and thus more valuable.
Consider this example. You are teaching a lesson on the geography and history of ancient Egypt. Instead of stating for students that the ancient Egyptian civilization arose around the banks of the Nile River leave something out.
Give your students a map or show them a Google Earth shot of Egypt and ask the students where they think the people of ancient Egypt lived. Next ask them why. Remove the facts and let them use their background knowledge and imagination.
While no means a major revelation, it is strange how often we feel the need to fill in the holes, the empty space for our students.
Leaving out the right ideas, concepts, information in our lessons engages the student’s imagination. This is the “white space” of instruction that I referred in Teaching In The White Space
As Matthew May points out in his fine book, The Pursuit of Elegance: Why The Best Ideas Have Something Missing, “What we normally think of as the easiest thing in the world to do—nothing—is in reality often the hardest.”
Doing nothing during a lesson is hard. We know we should let the students have some think time, or develop their own ideas and theories, but we often feel so pressed for time we simply ignore what we know we should do.
We feel the urge to fill up the time with activity or the silence with our voice. How powerful though, can white space be to engaging our students’ thinking and imagination?
Matthew May points out that the most innovative and creative individuals are, “…creatively engaging people’s imaginations by leaving out the right things.”
Next time you are planning a lesson, think of what to do, but also think of what not to do. Plan for some “white space.”