William Bernhardt – Energy: Input and Output

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt


A workshop which I conducted in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on “Technologies in the Teaching of Writing,” provided me with an opportunity to think again about energy in teaching and learning.

During the course of the workshop, which was attended by teachers of various modern languages including English, French, Hebrew and Portuguese, we experimented with a wide variety of instructional technologies such as “chalk and talk,” pencil and paper, audio tape, video tape and personal computers as well as the rods, charts and pictures associated with Dr. Gattegno‘s approaches to native and foreign language learning.

As I observed myself and others engaged in a variety of activities, it was apparent to me that some were very energizing for the participants, whereas others seemed to energize the leader while enervating the other participants! Clearly, the person responsible for leading or teaching the group at any particular moment always felt that he or she was putting in energy on behalf of the learners and that giving them more input would help them to more fully mobilize their own energies and participate more actively. But was that a valid supposition?

Whenever a teacher covers the blackboard with information for the students to copy, or lectures for a long time, we can say that there is a high energy input. The same is true whenever students are given a computer program containing many screens of closely packed information for them to access. The assumption often is that the greater the input in the form of information, the greater the learners’ output will be. However, when, after such extended periods of reading or listening, students are asked to respond to what they have received, their output is often very slight. Most of us have experienced this at many times during our teaching careers when we concluded a spirited and enthusiastic lecture with the words, “Any questions?” only to be met with a deafening silence.

Perhaps we could even say that there is often an inverse relationship between energy input and output in the classroom. So that the more the teacher talks and explains, whether actually through lectures or virtually (and this is something which has escaped the notice of true believers in technology) through texts, films, videos, simulations, etc., etc., the less active and productive the learners appear to be. As the teacher’s energy input increases, the student’s output decreases.

Many low-input teaching tools are particularly energizing to learners. Thus many students find the blinking cursor and empty screen of a word-processing program much more of an invitation to start composing than a screen filled with prompts, questions or sage advice.

When I see the blinking cursor on the screen in front of me, there is a focus for my energy. I feel invited to make my mark(s) on the screen because there is a clear opening for me. But when I see a screen full of directions, menus and other paraphernalia, I recognize that my energy has to be mobilized for resistance, to keep all of this input from overwhelming me.

In the field of writing, there is a spectrum or scale which extends from ways of working in which there is virtually no input to those in which there is very high input indeed. “Free writing” is an example of near-zero input. The teacher provides nothing to the learners except paper and pencil or a blank computer screen, and yet the results are copious. Assignments in which the instructor provides a “trigger,” such as an opening word or phrase, are examples of low input. Traditional topical assignments, on the other hand, represent examples of high input, especially when the assignment is accompanied by bibliographies and preceded by guided discussions. In most classrooms, it is these high energy input activities which produce the most disappointing results, with students continuing to claim that they have “nothing to say” no matter how much input they receive!

Dr. Gattegno’s Fidels:

English US Fidel - Caleb Gattegno

and Silent Way word charts:

Silent Way US English Word Charts

are examples of very low input technology. Although there is a vast amount of information implicit on the charts, the pointer directs us to only a tiny amount of input at any particular time. The rods are another example of low input:

Cuisenaire rods

Cuisenaire Co. UK

In relating to these materials, the learner maximizes his or her output.

I think it is also useful in this connection to compare the wall pictures designed by Dr. Gattegno to seemingly similar materials produced by various educational publishers. The other pictures are much more detailed and “photographic.” They convey much more specific (and up to date) cultural information, of that there can be no doubt. However, in my experience, students not only find them less evocative as the basis for conversation and writing, but also less helpful in focusing on the kinds of perceptual distinctions which are crucial in language learning. They give less, but they evoke more.

In the several years since my workshop in Sao Paulo, I find myself often asking such questions as

Can I notice when I am providing low input or high input?

Can I catch myself providing high input and substitute a lesser energy?

What are my inner criteria for knowing how much input I am supplying?

What are my criteria for assessing feedbacks from the learners with respect to my input to them?

I also need to acknowledge that excessively high energy input is not always a matter of talking too much or overloading students with information. It also occurs when I am focused on getting what I want instead of accepting and focusing on what the learners do in the here and now. At these times, I may be “silent” in terms of my speech production. Yet, at the same time, the force of my expectations and preconceptions causes the learners to receive high input in spite of my apparent silence.

When we become truly silent as teachers, our level of input can become so low that it is barely perceptible to the learners. This reduces the force of outside interferences to their becoming more conscious of their own energies, leading to a vast increase in output.

© William Bernhardt
New York, 1994



William Bernhardt teaches at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

He studied with Dr. Gattegno starting in the early 70s, and all of his teaching and writing since that time has been part of an effort to integrate what he learned from Gattegno with his everyday life and work.

In recent years, he has been particularly concerned with applying the principles of Words in Color and The Silent Way to teaching and learning with computers, while trying to always keep in mind that technology is a human invention and must be used with respect for the powers of learners that transcend all technologies.

Creative Commons License
“Energy: Input and Output” by William Bernhardt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 Unported License.