For those not familiar, he was one half of the musical genius that founded Steely Dan. As a musician myself, I loved the complexity and precision of their music.

As I read Rickie Lee Jones’ Poignant Tribute to Steely Dan’s Walter Becker in the days following I couldn’t help but notice parallels between this musical genius and great teaching and learning. As she points out in the quote below, it wasn’t so much the lines they wrote but the thoughts and emotions that the lines allowed for.

Great teaching does the same.Good teachers know their content and plan lessons that deliver that content. Good teachers differentiate their lessons and instruction to better meet the needs of their students.  They have and foster a growth mindset and engage in quality assessment and literacy practices. When appropriate, good teachers engage and empower students with technology in ways that further their learning. They even promote creativity and other strategies that help students show their thinking and learning. One might even describe a teacher like this as “effective”.

Almost every parent would be ecstatic to have their child experience teachers like this and they should be. If all of our teachers were teaching like this test scores would likely skyrocket and kids would learn more. A teacher like the one described above is toeing the line of quality teaching.

And yet they may still not be great.

Great teachers do all of those things all the while creating the cognitive terrain where learners fill in the spaces between the lines with their own “ah-ha’s”. Great teachers leverage student curiosity to spark beautiful questions and profound thinking.

If teaching were a musical playlist, great teachers wouldn’t just play simple children’s music, they would play tunes that connect with emotions and allow the listeners to jump, jive and wail. Great teachers create scenarios from which learners realize and create connections that may not have been foreseen. They help students make meaning and memories and achieve personal and social change like great music.

Good teaching stares straight at the standards and often asks students to do the same. Great teaching asks students to consider something that will require they see those standards, and more, in their peripheral vision and bring it into focus when they need to know them.

Good teaching puts the content in the bright lights and illuminates it in ways that makes it accessible. Great teaching shrouds that content in mystery and meaningful challenges so compelling it becomes nearly impossible to keep learners from it.

Good teaching focuses with great precision on questions that are important to teachers and adults. Great teaching leads learners into those same questions by asking questions that are important to them.

To be clear, good teaching is hard. It’s frenetic, discouraging at times, and wrought with all kinds of obstacles. Great teaching, though, isn’t much harder, at least not logistically. Great teaching grows from rich inquiry and therein lies the real art of teaching. The hardest part isn’t the planning, most teachers can plan. The hardest part is planning in a way that allows you to demonstrate your art and craftsmanship.

If great music were about just accurately playing the notes then computers would be playing Carnegie Hall. Similarly, if great learning was about just accurately teaching the content then computers would be replacing teachers. Perhaps both will happen one day but not until they have the ability to inspire and move the thoughts and emotions of their audiences.

Good teachers teach content in ways that promotes thinking. Great teachers teach thinking in ways that promotes content.

Put another way, great teachers teach thought.