Some years ago, I had the privilege of listening to the renowned historian, David McCullough, speak in Salt Lake City. The title of his lecture instantly grabbed my attention—“The Importance of Teachers.” McCullough discussed the influence teachers had had on key figures in American history. I was especially impressed by one of McCullough’s stories—The Incident of the Fish:
Louis Agassiz, a well-known American scientist of his day, was also a master teacher with a rather unconventional teaching style. Agassiz was a professor at Harvard University. He prepared no syllabus for his courses, nor did he require an entrance exam for students to enroll in his classes. They were accepted simply on whether or not he liked them, which meant that he took just about everyone.
Agassiz believed that the way to all learning, “the backbone of education,” as he frequently reminded his students, was to know something thoroughly. “A smattering of everything is worth little,” he asserted. His goal was to teach students “to see deeply” in order to develop genuine understanding. This objective was illustrated by “the incident of the fish,” as told by one of his former students, Samuel Scudder.
After Professor Agassiz interviewed and accepted Samuel Scudder into his class, he asked Samuel when he would like to begin. Scudder responded, “Right now.” Agassiz excused himself momentarily. When he re-entered the classroom, he was carrying a dead fish! This was a stinking, putrid and foul-smelling fish personally selected by Agassiz from among countless jars lining the shelves. Professor Agassiz placed the dead fish on a dish in front of Samuel Scudder. He then provided this simple instruction, “Look at the fish.” At this point, Agassiz left the room. Scudder described what happened next:
In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen of that fish. Half an hour passed—an hour—another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly! I was in despair. I was forbidden to use a magnifying glass. Instruments of all kinds were forbidden. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish! It seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish, and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.
Hours later, Agassiz returned and listened as Scudder attempted to describe his observations and asked his teacher what he should do next. The astute professor repeated his original directive, “Look at the fish!” Scudder continued:
I was irritated; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a renewed will, and discovered one new thing after another. The afternoon passed quickly; and when, toward its close, the professor inquired, “Do you see it?” I replied, “No, I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.
The following day, having thought of the fish throughout the night, Samuel Scudder had a brainstorm. “The fish,” he explained to Professor Agassiz, “had symmetrical sides with paired organs.”
“Of course! Of course!” Agassiz said, obviously delighted, when his new student shared his newfound insight. Once again, Scudder asked what he should do next, and Agassiz enthusiastically replied, “Oh, look at your fish!” This lesson went on for three full days. “Look, look, look!” was the repeated charge. Years later, Scudder, who became widely known for his work on the importance of first-hand, careful observation in the natural sciences, frequently recalled the legacy of his beloved teacher.
In an era that places too great an emphasis on testing, it is vital that we continue to teach for deep understanding, just as Louis Agassiz did so many years ago. We should always consider the following question, “What does it mean to truly understand something?” Understanding fundamental, core ideas and developing the capacity to transfer and apply should be the primary goals of all teaching and learning. Thank you to the hundreds of dedicated teachers in Weber School District who teach for deep understanding, application and transfer every day. This remains “the backbone” of a child’s educational experience.