Teaching and Suspense

What do potboilers and classrooms have in common?


Recently, in The New York Times, bestselling mystery writer Lee Child drew a connection between writing a mystery novel and baking a cake.

The question, he wrote, is not how to bake the cake, but how to make someone hungry for it. The same goes for mystery writing—how do you make a reader hunger for the solution to a mystery?

We should ask the same question about teaching: How do you make students hungry about this or that? How do you keep them from looking at their watches, checking their iPhones, or daydreaming?

Having written a suspense novel, I can see the connection between teaching and suspense. In both cases, you must apply the maxim: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” Of course, “making them wait” will not by itself produce a good mystery—or a good class. You have to make them wait in a certain way: planting clues, presenting ideas that resonate, making the journey interesting, and, if possible, making them laugh and cry.

But a good mystery and a good class also differ in a fundamental way: the mystery has a solution; the class doesn’t. We give students a first bite of the cake—or the apple, to switch into a grander metaphor—but only enough to make them want another bite.

When I was a young teacher—and even now, when I am not in the right mood—I rushed to give responses to questions from students. I used to think that my error was hurrying to answer; now I see it was my assumption that there were answers to give. Even the simplest questions don’t have simple answers. This is what derails novice teachers—they haven’t yet realized that there are an infinite number of answers to any questions. They think they are moving inexorably toward a given end without realizing that there are avenues, just as good, that might lead to somewhere else entirely, if they only trusted themselves and their students more.

This is what makes teaching so rewarding and learning so much fun. It is also what makes both so frustrating and difficult. In the best cases, what teachers and students learn is that knowledge ends up making you hungrier than when you began. That is its pleasure and its pain.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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