Commentaries - February 2012

Learning, not teaching

This space could be retrofitted into sixteen seminar rooms, or two or three small houses.

A brilliant former student, now pondering a career as a teacher, asks a few questions. I hope he will forgive me the pithy responses.

What do you think is the purpose of education?

Not to teach but to enable learning. That will sometimes entail teaching, but mostly will entail other modes. These other modes are best effected in small groups (either in person or virtual, but ideally small in number). These other modes should probably not be put into practice in a classroom. Maybe, to take one possible example, in an old house.

Why do you think it is important to teach?

Not “important to teach,” but important to be part of organizations dedicated to enabling learning. The reasons for that are obvious, I hope. Learners often (although not always) benefit from guidance when they deal with materials and with problems new to them. They also benefit from guidance when the environment (outside schools--e.g. stressed or nonfunctioning families, wartorn or poverty-stricken communities, etc.) is not otherwise conducive to thought.

What strategies or methods do you think are effective?

Leading discussions of problems and materials enables learning and application of lessons to other contexts and situations. Lecturing enables consumption, reinforcement of subject discipline, belief in the authority of the lecturer, and silos of intellection.

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A few hours after I published it, a student whom I know (but who has not taken my classes) read the above commentary carefully. Where was she at the time? In a “200-person lecture class.” She wrote a thoughtful response (on a laptop wirelessly connected) about the thing to which she was failing to attend, but, judging from the quality of her writing on this topic, I’ll venture to say she was learning quite a bit about learning. This special sort of inattention thrills me. It hints at a counter-hegemony of the seminar-style discussion — the give-and-take of a student and a teacher that can be managed all while the lecturer continues on. (By the way, three weeks into the semester, this student reports, the attendance at sessions of the lecture course has dwindled to 25%. This is apparently typical.)