Meta-Teaching Methods: What does Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have to do with Pre-Algebra?

For how seriously we as parents take education, are our children doing the same? Instead of asking my two teenage boys, “What did you learn today?” I like to ask, “How and why did it matter?”

For a special issue of the Sunday Magazine of New York Times, 12 successful individuals such as Caterina Fake (founder of Flickr & Hunch), Pico Iyer (an author) and Michelle A. Rhee (founder of Student First) were asked to contribute an impact statement concerning their educational memory. In this article The Educational Experiences That Change a Life these contributors rendered their stories with coveted nostalgia.

One of my favorite contributors was Wes Anderson (a filmmaker) who talked about his teacher, Mr. Burris.

Here’s an excerpt from that

He was nothing like our other teachers. For one thing, he was a man. The only man in the school who did not teach P.E. Also, he had a computer. I think he built it himself. His handwriting was neat but somehow exotic. He spoke briskly and seriously, and he pointed his finger at us a lot. It was immediately apparent that the range of his knowledge went far beyond anything we were ever going to touch on in class. He invented games for us. In the fall, we were each assigned countries that we represented in an international trade market. Wars were declared. Mineral deposits were discovered. Fortunes were made and lost. In the spring, he put up a poster on which he had pasted a hundred faces cut out of newspapers and magazines. All semester we searched for clues and slowly learned who they were, but he had to finally give us Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (This was in pre-algebra, by the way.)

After reading this narrative what struck me was Mr. Anderson’s description of Mr. Burris’ range of knowledge, his passion not just for teaching, but for life, his innovative approach and his ability to connect that learning (even in math) to life. What a way to make an impact on your student?

Teaching is imparting knowledge and influencing minds. Education of teachers may lead them to become proficient and skilled professionals in teaching the subject matter. However, the passion of facilitating perspective shift and connecting information to global meaning of life requires “meta-teaching”. This process of “teaching with an awareness of learning as it occurs” can impart the thirst for becoming a life long learner. It probably was hard for a high school student to understand why Mr. Burris would bring up the Nobel prize-winning writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a pre-algebra class. But Mr. Burris really saw how and why learning about Gulag and its political repression makes one think using the same brain that we use to think about mathematical reasoning.

All learners with or without learning disabilities deserve an effective teacher. Rather than waiting for an educational overhaul to take place, how about coaching internal and mental overhauls for individual teachers.

An Effective Meta-Teaching Method:

  • Engages all students including those who are distractible and inattentive in the intentional process of learning
  • Makes learning activities more transparent by provoking questions about purposefulness
  • Always includes introspection
  • Discusses and illustrates the connection between student knowledge/skills, and the “big-picture”
  • Provokes individual teachers to share novel teaching methods through continuous professional collaboration and dyads
  • Enhances the SELF through goal setting, performance, implementation, introspection and comparing oneself with the “industry” standard

Students with executive dysfunction have incredible difficulty in connecting today’s activities with tomorrow’s goals. They need an “interpreter” such as Mr. Burris who can activate and exfoliate their mind to think about classroom learning, the value of diversity of thought and connecting ideas even when they lack apparent connections. I hope the teachers are excited about the prospect of Meta-Teaching!

I invite you to leave a comment and join me in sharing ideas. If you would you like to know more about my practice, visit my website at For any further communication, leave me a note here or contact me at

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